Why Airlines Might Abandon Your City

Nightmare Scenario #1: You've got your briefcase in hand, boarding pass in pocket, and your carry-on rolling behind you. You head to the airport with confidence. Except — there are no planes there.

Sound crazy? Keep reading.

Nightmare Scenario #2: You jump in a cab, heading to the airport; you know your airline is there, so no worries about any missing planes. The only problem is, your cab ride to the nearest airport with flights takes four hours.

Impossible? Well, in today's environment, it could happen. Airlines are bailing out of certain cities and routes. Your city could be next.

Today's environment is key here: We have a stumbling economy (okay, it occasionally trips and falls, too); currency is upside down (great for the Brits who come to visit — not so great for the rest of us because, yes, you can pay $9 for a cup of coffee in London); and let's not forget those killer jet fuel costs. Go ahead, call this a toxic environment; few in the airline industry will disagree.

What the airlines are doing to stay "aflight" is raising prices and cutting back flights to make sure those price hikes stick. You know all about the raising-prices-and-fees part (American Airlines was the final airline to announce $25 to check a second bag); but what might be more nefarious for many travelers, especially those in smaller cities with regional airports, is what one airline analyst tagged as an inevitable "mother of all capacity cuts" that will occur as legacy airlines begin to merge.

Deciding where to cut routes and cities is fairly easy; airline bean-counters simply sort their city-pair spreadsheets by profitability, and those at the bottom are first on the hit list. Naturally, they look at the number of passengers who travel in and out of the cities in question (although, interestingly enough, if there are too few passengers, smaller airlines may qualify for federal subsidies — during 2006, for example, Department of Transportation figures indicate subsidized Big Sky Airlines averaged just two passengers a day on its Lewiston to Billings, Mont., route). Unfortunately, even those subsidies weren't enough to keep Big Sky from going bust.

Another factor: Do people in your town consider their passport to be just as important as a driver's license? In other words, does your city have potential outbound international travelers, or whatever it takes to attract international passengers?

This is important because, for a lot of the airlines, international travel is where the money is. Delta Airlines, for example, has dropped a number of cities in recent months (including Islip, N.Y.; Bellingham, Wash.; Fargo, N.D., and Atlantic City, N.J.), and has made it clear their future expansion efforts will be overseas.

How else to determine if your city is at risk of airline deprivation? Easy. One or more of your city's airlines goes bankrupt. We've seen a lot of this lately, with the death of Aloha, Skybus, ATA and more. Now, if this does happen in your stomping grounds, maybe another airline will come in and take over. Or, more likely in this environment, they won't. Remember, those "lower cost" airlines that would have eagerly gobbled up the leavings of a legacy carrier in past years, now face the same hard issues as the big boys. Maybe to a lesser degree, but all the airlines are feeling that pinch.

Something else to consider: Does your city subsidize an airline to help drive down overall prices? Wichita, Kan., did; the lucky recipient was airTran. Then Wichita decided not to subsidize airTran. AirTran left. There's a moral there, but maybe the citizens of Wichita are happy with their decision.

Finally, here's where jet fuel comes in with a vengeance: What aircraft does the airline(s) servicing your city fly? If it's not fuel efficient enough, or the airline can't fill enough seats, they may just park those planes out in the desert, to sit in the sun because that may be a lot cheaper than flying those planes (even if they are full) once oil hits $140 a barrel or more.

By the way, seats are already disappearing. The capacity cutbacks are being felt. I consulted our historical flight schedules to compare U.S. domestic flights on a typical Monday in September 2007 with that same day in September this year; I found that in 2007 that day, there were about 2.6 million seats in planes crisscrossing the United States. But on that day this year, there will only be about 2.5 million seats. That's down about 4 percent, which is the equivalent of 570 daily flights by a 737 jetliner.

The good news is, Virgin America, Southwest and other lower cost carriers (and Continental) have added some seats. The bad news is they have all said they won't be doing so for the foreseeable future and — even worse — Delta and US Airways are dropping more than twice as many seats as Virgin America and Southwest are adding, combined.

I also noticed a trend in the data that you're probably already aware of if you have flown lately: the continued downsizing of domestic flights. Airlines are dumping prop planes and narrow and mid-body planes like 717s, 737s, MD80s, DC-9s, 757s, 767s and Airbus A320s in favor of 50 and 70 seat regional jets (70 being the most popular).

The best advice I can give in these trying times for air travel is to act like a boy scout — and be prepared for every eventuality in air travel, because you're likely to run into a variety of painful situations. We all know by now that when bad things happen with airlines, like route cut-backs, city cut-backs or even complete shut-downs, we, the passengers, seem to get as little notice as possible.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects 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.