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Short changed on short hops?

Bargains? What bargains? Where airlines have route monopolies, expect to pay through the nose.
/ Source: Reuters

Even with all the airfare bargains available these days, some short-hop trips where competition is limited or nonexistent are as expensive as ever. A San Francisco reader trying to extend a Pittsburgh business trip to a couple of nearby leisure destinations is proof of that. He writes:

“I’m looking at flights from Pittsburgh to either Philadelphia or New York and can’t seem to find a ticket lower than $300. The weird thing is that I can get a ticket from San Francisco to Pittsburgh for $180 round trip.

“I am wondering why it is so expensive to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia when it’s such a short distance? I ... thought I was going to get some quick inexpensive weekends to Philly and New York, but it’s cheaper to come all the way home.”

Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, says the plain fact is that major network carriers are still losing a lot of money and have had to drop prices on some of their competitive long-haul routes.

“The major network carriers would love to get more money for long-haul routes but they can’t. In the meantime, if they have a monopoly route, they won’t give anybody a break,” he said.

“I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. It’s just a difference in philosophy. If Southwest has a route and fills its planes up, it adds more planes. If a major network carrier fills its planes it just keeps going up with the prices,” Mitchell said, adding that the choices on the routes in question here are either US Airways or Amtrak.

A check we made with one on-line site found round-trip Pittsburgh-Philadelphia fares quoted at $587 to $1,807, some with improbable stopovers such as Detroit and Washington.


If this traveler can’t find a way to add another city to the itinerary using the original ticket from San Francisco, then a rental car would be a better bet for the 305 or so miles involved here.

Tom Parsons, publisher of ( says the traveler would probably be facing even higher prices between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., a route he says has historically had extreme prices.

“Where business travelers are going to is where there is competition among the top six (network carriers). If there is no competition or another low-cost airport right next door, you’re probably going to pay premium dollar. Every airline has lost millions and they’re trying to capture that money.”

Clinton Oster, a professor of law and public policy at Indiana University and a veteran airline industry consultant, remarked that he recently traveled from his home to Memphis, Tenn., and the ticket “probably cost more than a trip I made in April to Tokyo.”

He adds: “There are several things going on. It’s always been true that short hops cost more per mile than long. That has to do with the operating characteristics of airplanes.” Short flights often use as much fuel as longer ones, since most consumption is on takeoff and landing.

But it really is a lack of competition that explains what’s going on now, Oster said.

“Not many people are flying 300 miles for a vacation. The people taking the shorter trips are typically not as sensitive to price as those on the longer ones,” he said. “Airlines know that and will take advantage of that.”

A business traveler might have a cheaper short-hop option involving a route through another city, Oster adds, but it really isn’t an option given the time it takes for people who want to complete a trip in one day.

“So I get soaked for the ticket, but I don’t have a choice,” he said.

What could change things, he said, is if point-to-point carriers like Jet Blue or Southwest (which is now the sixth largest U.S. carrier in terms of size) are able to enter some of the short-run markets.

But Oster said the low-fare carriers have not shown much interest so far in expanding into hubs dominated by a single carrier.