"Why is my airport so expensive?" I hear this question all the time, and here's the answer. The airfare you purchase to fly from your airport is expensive because the facility is A) Small and a fairly long drive to the nearest larger airport, or B) There's little or no competition, especially low-cost airline competition, or C) both.
Let's take a look at the latest list of "most expensive" airports in the U.S., as defined by the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS); the numbers crunchers there base this list on a 10 percent sample of airline tickets sold during July, August and September of 2009.
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Top Three Most Expensive Airports:
1. Huntsville, Ala.
2. Grand Rapids, Mich.
3. Savannah, Ga.
The BTS has the complete list and lots more fun numbers, but let's dissect these three, shall we? And keep reading for tips on how to avoid these most expensive airports. And yes, we will get to the cheapest airports shortly.
Now while Huntsville, Grand Rapids and Savannah are hardly villages (Grand Rapids has a population of close to 200,000, Savannah's at 132,000 with Grand Rapids falls somewhere in between), all three are small towns in airport parlance.
These are regional airports and passengers who patronize them pay a penalty. Fly out of Huntsville, Grand Rapids, Savannah, Knoxville, Tenn., or any number of smaller airports and you'll pay an average of $50 to $150 more per roundtrip ticket than you would for flights out of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Regional airports are also notorious for lack of competition, but you can find this problem at larger facilities too: for years, Cincinnati was one of the nation's most expensive airports and it drove Midwestern fliers to distraction. As a result, more passengers got in their cars and drove to other airports. Dayton and even Indianapolis began siphoning off Cincinnati passengers, simply because airline tickets were cheaper.
This is where the lack of competition comes in, or we can use the word "monopoly" if you like: no, Delta isn't the only airline out of Cincinnati, but it's long been a Delta hub devoid of real rivals and it charged accordingly. Eventually, though, Delta presumably tired of losing business and in early 2009, the carrier slashed prices so Cincinnati no longer tops the most expensive list (and here's another comment I hear all the time: "What took them so long?").
In fact, Cincinnati showed the biggest drop in airfares among all airports during the past third quarter compared with the third quarter of 2008. Minneapolis and Milwaukee followed close behind in this price drop derby.
Minneapolis and Milwaukee? Yes, and you can credit the "Southwest effect." When the low-cost carrier sets its sights on a new town, airfare wars are sure to follow. And it helps if there's another scrappy contender in the mix, such as AirTran in Milwaukee. Bottom line: a win for passengers.
So what about the airports with the lowest average airfares in the third quarter of last year? Take a look:
Top Three Cheapest Airports:
1. Atlantic City, N.J.
2. Orlando, Fla.
3. Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
The Florida cities are fairly easy to explain: Orlando is a huge tourism center, with good competition from multiple airlines. Ft. Lauderdale not only has airline competition but competition from another big airport -- Miami International -- just 27 miles away.
However, Atlantic City is harder to explain, but I'll try because under most circumstances, I would not put it on any list of cheapest airports. The BTS does, though, and this is primarily because of the relatively small number of total flights mostly between Florida on the ultra-low cost carrier Spirit. Comparing Atlantic City to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. (the fourth most expensive according to BTS) is like comparing apples and mangos.
But if you live in South Jersey and want non-stops elsewhere or just cheaper fares in general, drive an hour to Philadelphia. A flight from Atlantic City to Las Vegas this month for example, will cost $383 roundtrip, and that includes two stops. Fly from Philadelphia and it costs just $219 with one stop or $237 non-stop. Is it worth it to you drive for an hour to save from $146 to $164? It would be to me, especially with a few in the group.
Which brings me to my advice for those who live near expensive airports. Look at a map, find the big hubs near you and compare prices. And be prepared to drive if it's worth it.
Say you live in Huntsville: you may find fares to Cincinnati are substantially cheaper out of Birmingham, and that fares to Chicago are cheaper out of Nashville.
Live in Grand Rapids? See what's doing in Detroit or Chicago. Call Savannah home? Check out the prices in Charleston, S.C. or Jacksonville, Fla.
One last thing: a significant portion of the total price of your ticket includes government taxes and airport fees (typically over $50 for a domestic connecting roundtrip). Additionally, airlines pay airports landing fees which vary from airport to airport that can make your airport more or less expensive.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly is on record as being perplexed by "expensive" airport landing fees, especially those that go toward creating what he calls "monuments" instead of functional airports. Who pays these fees? You do, ultimately.
Speaking of Southwest, you might want to check out that carrier's home airport, Dallas' Love Field. It's in the top five of that list of cheapest airports.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.