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Former fliers now choosing to hit the road

Image: Commuter
A commuter waits at the Stamford, Conn., train stationDouglas Healey / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

Greg Miller is the type of frequent flier the nation's financially struggling airlines miss most. Twice a month for more than two years, the Arlington-based software salesman paid $300 round trip to take a 30-minute flight from Washington to Philadelphia on US Airways.

But nearly a year ago, Miller stopped flying and began driving the two hours in his Infiniti instead. Miller was frustrated with the long security lines at Reagan National Airport and that US Airways, like most airlines, cut back on the number of flights, giving him less scheduling flexibility. By driving, Miller says he can come and go whenever he wants, and his company reimburses him for his mileage.

“It makes more sense as far as time consumption to drive,” he said.

Despite climbing gas prices, many business travelers say it's still cheaper and easier to drive, especially on business trips that are less than 500 miles. For these travelers, switching to Amtrak, a popular alternative for airline passengers between Washington and New York, is often not the best option. That's because many of their meetings are well away from the downtown train stations.

Most of these shorter routes are concentrated in the Northeast. That means those carriers that have a large number of flights in the area — mostly US Airways and Delta — have seen the biggest losses to the car.

According to the latest statistics from the Travel Industry Association, more than 44 percent of 300,000 individuals surveyed in 2002 said driving was their preferred means of business travel, up from 42 percent in 2001. Meanwhile, 38 percent of those surveyed said they preferred to fly, down from 39 percent in 2001.

For years, frequent traveler Michael Steinberg was a regular on the Delta Shuttle between his Boston home and New York. But nearly three years ago, Steinberg stopped paying the $250 shuttle fare and began driving the 190 miles instead.

“Although driving takes a little longer, the cost of fuel and parking is still much less than the shuttle, which make it worthwhile,” he said.

Capitol Hill-based government consultant Sean Fox also gave up flying between Washington and Philadelphia. He has even driven to New York rather than take the shuttle, especially when his business trips are outside of New York City.

Fox said driving is more relaxing and, with his hands-free cellular phone, he's able to return more phone calls and have uninterrupted conference calls. “I've had a couple of trips where I was on the phone the entire trip and went from one call to the next,” he said. “You can't do that on a flight.”

The airlines response and safety issues

Since demand often dictates service, some of the airlines are offering fewer shorter flights. The number of short flights, 500 miles or less, dropped nearly 10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003 compared with the same period in 2002, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The number of flights overall out of the Washington area fell 6.3 percent.

The airlines have tried to lure high-paying frequent fliers back on the short hops. They have designated special and shorter boarding and security lines for their best customers, and encouraged more travelers to use the automated kiosks to bypass the ticket counter lines.

The test will come this summer as business travelers and vacationers converge on the nation's airports, especially as some facilities wrestle with security staffing.

These frequent fliers know the driving-versus-flying statistics well enough. Last year, nearly 43,000 people were killed in vehicular accidents on America's roads, according to AAA. There were 24 fatalities involving passenger airlines last year.

But convenience is a higher priority. “You can get into an accident driving around the corner to a Starbucks,” Miller said. "You value the flexibility of dictating your own schedule when you drive more so than worrying about the danger factor.