Fliers in for pain as airlines pack it in

The USA's air-travel map is shrinking fast, dropping scores of routes and flights that airlines simply can't afford anymore in a world of $130-a-barrel oil.

A USA TODAY analysis of fall airline schedules shows the nation's most popular vacation destinations will be among the biggest air-service losers. Many flights to Honolulu, Orlando, Las Vegas and other favorite vacation venues have vanished or will soon because cheap tickets bought by tourists don't cover the cost of getting there.

Travelers who fly among the USA's biggest business airports — such as New York LaGuardia, Chicago O'Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth — will probably see the fewest changes, because there's ample demand and fares are high.

But large cities in the shadow of larger airline hub airports will suffer disproportionate losses. For example, flights out of Oakland, a low-airfare alternative to San Francisco, will have almost a fifth fewer seats this October than a year earlier as airlines reduce or eliminate Oakland service in favor of more profitable flights at San Francisco.

Small cities won't be spared. More than 50 small airports in the Lower 48 states serving places such as Rockford, Ill., and Stockton, Calif., will lose a third or more of the service they had last October as measured by seats on domestic flights. Other midsize airports are seeing double-digit reductions. Kansas City, for example, will have 16% less service in October than a year ago, and Tulsa 13% less.

At least 15 tiny airports such as Merced, Calif., have lost or will lose all of what little air service they had from Mesa Airlines subsidiary Air Midwest, because that small regional carrier is shutting down this month, a casualty of high fuel prices. They are scrambling to replace their service. Many of those small and midsize communities have been served by 50-seat regional jets or even smaller planes, aircraft that generate too little revenue to justify the same service now.

Comparing changes over a broader time frame, the Air Transport Association says air service has been eliminated in 60 communities that had some in 2007, and 37 more will lose all service later this year.

For fliers, fall will bring fewer daily flights on some busy routes, especially less-popular early-morning and late-night flights. There'll be fewer non-stop choices, especially from cities that are not airlines' hub airports. Many travelers accustomed to flying non-stop from their local airports will be forced to drive to a distant airport for the flight they need or will have to use connecting flights.

Where airlines quit flying, reduced competition will allow the remaining carriers to push up fares.

"The good times are about to end for consumers," says airline consultant Mo Garfinkle of GCW Consulting. "They've had it too good, with low fares, for too long. These cuts are just the first step; we will see more this fall."

Most major airlines have announced modest domestic flying reductions of about 10% or less for the fall. Industry analysts such as JPMorgan's Jamie Baker and Calyon Securities' Ray Neidl are calling for cuts of at least 20% of airlines' domestic flying capacity if airlines hope to break even. Some airline officials agree.

"If fuel prices continue at these levels, this will not be enough," says Kevin Knight, United Airlines' senior vice president of route planning.

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