Airport Nightmare: Flight Schedule Cutbacks

Ah, New York in winter. It can be so beautiful, or it can be less than delightful. Remember how actress Tallulah Bankhead once famously described herself as being "pure as the driven slush"? That might suffice as a description for the Big Apple on ice. And when that's the case, time to head south for the season.

Only the snowbirds won't have it so easy this year. Starting in earnest this month, nonstop flights between New York and 25 domestic and international cities will disappear and service to an additional 55 cities will be sharply curtailed. That means no direct flights to Bangkok, Bologna or Bucharest. But let's talk Tucson.

Say you're in Queens and you want to escape to Tucson, Ariz., this winter. Continental used to have direct flights there and so did JetBlue -- not anymore. I'm not saying you can't get to Tucson. You just have to go miles out of your way -- through, say, Chicago or Dallas -- then hang around in airports for hours. Slowly it dawns on you: You could have flown to Paris more quickly.

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And what about popular destinations like Orlando or Las Vegas? Well, by the end of this year, Orlando will see about 12 percent fewer flights. As for Las Vegas, Southwest announced it'll cut back Vegas departures by an even dozen and US Airways has already cut multiple dozens of flights. A year ago, US Airways had 141 departures to and from Vegas' McCarran airport but by the end of the year that figure will be very close to half that.

These kinds of cutbacks (or fear of such cutbacks) have prompted some smaller facilities to get creative.

Kansas City's airport is trying to lure customers with offers of free parking for a day (for a limited time, anyway), and Mobile Regional Airport in Alabama has started a "points" program where awarded points can be used for VIP lounge passes, cruise discounts, that sort of thing.

Orlando International doesn't have to make such gestures; despite airline cutbacks, it's still one of the busier airports in the nation and it can still pull a rabbit out of its hat every now and then -- like the announcement that Brazil's largest airline, TAM, will begin daily service from Sao Paulo to Orlando later this year. And, as the airport officials like to point out, despite the cutbacks (which include direct service to eight smaller cities like Allentown, Pa.,) the surviving flights will still have enough seats available to accommodate all the fly-in visitors that arrived last year -- more than 36 million -- and then some.

Still, Orlando's tourist officials keep using the term "cautiously optimistic" about whether the year's fly-in tourist figure will be met or exceeded this year, and there are some worrisome signs: For example, the proprietor of a small, family-owned motel reportedly said his business has plummeted 60 percent this year. And the people at the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau say they know there are a few "pockets" of problems out there, which is why the bureau's Danielle Saba Courtenay says it is launching its largest fall media advertising campaign ever -- one that's three times as large as any the bureau has done before.

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