Small cities with fewer flights per day could have a harder time promoting themselves as good locations for conventions, new factories or corporate offices.
"Communities won't lose air service entirely, but they will lose access to air service, because it will be more expensive," aviation consultant Michael Boyd says.
The ripple effect of higher fares and air cargo rates could affect every part of the economy that depends on air service.
Resorts, hotels, cruise lines and convention destinations could suffer. Tourism, especially in states such as Florida, Nevada and Hawaii that depend on it heavily, could take a hit, damaging state economies and forcing cuts in government services.
High jet fuel prices helped prompt the April 14 merger deal between Delta and Northwest nwa airlines, whose marriage would produce the world's biggest carrier.
Delta and Northwest have pledged not to close any of their seven airport hubs if federal regulators approve their deal, but both already are slashing unprofitable flights. More mergers are possible — United and US Airways are in talks — in a trend that could reduce competition among carriers.
"Travel patterns are going to change," predicts Northwest CEO Doug Steenland.
Travelers likely will begin seeing big changes this fall as major airlines reduce service more aggressively by dropping routes, substituting smaller planes and reducing the number of daily flights on a route.
The airlines' goal: Push up the average price paid for each remaining seat to generate the maximum revenue per gallon of fuel burned.
Delta, the USA's third-biggest carrier, will get rid of up to 20 full-size jets and up to 70 small regional jets this year. It's pulling out of several cities, including: Atlantic City; Islip, Long Island; Tupelo, Miss.; and Corpus Christi, Texas.
This month, JetBlue jblu will halt service between New York and Tucson.
That route's current flights — one a day each way — generally are 70% full. However, at current fares and fuel prices, the flights need to be 85% full for JetBlue to break even on them, according to airline data.
Chicago-based United Airlines, uaua the nation's second-biggest airline, will retire at least 30 of its oldest, least-fuel-efficient jets this year.
United lost $537 million in the first three months of this year, its biggest loss since emerging from bankruptcy reorganization in 2006.
American, Continental cal and Northwest are planning smaller cuts. However, some industry leaders and analysts say none of the announced cuts go deep enough. Some predict more cuts are coming.
"I guarantee you that if oil prices remain at the same level … you'll see even more reductions in capacity," AirTran aai CEO Bob Fornaro said last week.
More fare increases expected
Airlines have raised fares 10 times since the middle of December, and several are hinting at an 11th increase this week. More jumps in ticket prices are widely expected to follow.
Parsons says travelers on long-haul routes of more than 1,500 miles already are paying up to $260 more for a round-trip ticket than they did four months ago. The increases on some routes are even higher.
Consultant Richard Leck, founder of Bruin Consulting in Bedford, N.H., flies nearly every week from Boston or Manchester, N.H., through Chicago to San Francisco, where his client is based.