While air service has increased and prices have dropped at
large airports over the past 15 years, the picture has been more mixed for
medium-size airports, according to a recent analysis by the Eno Center for
Some 853 million domestic travelers flew from large airports
in 2005, the year in which the US Airways purchase of America West touched off
a consolidation boom that saw five major U.S. airline mergers in eight years,
the Eno Center, a Washington-based think tank, noted in its new blog, Aviation
Insights. By 2016, the number of domestic passengers at large airports had
risen to 985 million.
Conversely, medium-size airports, roughly defined by the
Department of Transportation as those that handle between 5 million and 15
million passengers per year, saw their aggregate domestic traffic shrink from
284 million passengers in 2005 to 274 million in 2016.
As traffic has risen at large airports, prices have gone down.
In 2001, the average one-way domestic fare out of a large airport was $256
while one-way flights from medium-size airports were priced at an average of
By 2016, those figures had nearly converged, with one-way
tickets from large airports costing $207 on average, compared with $206 for
But despite the trend lines, analysts said last week that
they were not certain about the cause, or even if the trends are relevant.
"There is going to be a lot of variation around this data,"
said Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth's Thayer
School who specializes in airport system operations.
Indeed, the Eno Center notes that the dynamics of each
airport are different and that fluctuations in passenger traffic and ticket
prices can be driven by many factors, including the economics of a region,
regulatory changes, specific business decisions made by airlines and by
For example, on average, large hubs saw passenger growth of
15% between 2005 and 2016, but Washington Dulles saw a 34% decline in traffic,
due at least in part to strong growth at nearby Washington Reagan National and
Baltimore-Washington airports. Conversely, San Francisco saw its passenger
numbers grow 62% during those 11 years, driven largely by the Bay Area's robust
economy, according to the Eno Center.
In aggregate, medium airports saw a 4% decline in passenger
traffic between 2005 and 2016, but in that sector, too, fortunes varied widely
by airport. At Dallas Love Field, for example, traffic grew 157% as its
dominant carrier, Southwest, expanded operations after the repeal of the
federal Wright Amendment, which had prohibited all but short-haul flights from
On the other hand, Cincinnati and Memphis saw respective passenger-count
declines of 71% and 63% as a result of Delta's decision to close hubs that it
inherited in its 2008 merger with Northwest.
Nevertheless, even looking airport-for-airport, it is mostly
the users of large U.S. airports who have come up winners. Of the 30 airports
that saw both a drop in domestic fares and an increase in domestic traffic
since 2001, 23 are large airports. Of the eight airports in which traffic went
down and ticket prices rose, only Tampa falls in the FAA's large category.
Still, said Peter Belobaba, the airline industry program
director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is important to be
circumspect when looking at such figures. Notably, he said, the analysis doesn't
account for increases or decreases in the average length of flights at various
airports. Belobaba cited Love Field, where flight lengths have gotten longer,
as an example. Fares from the central Dallas airport have risen 22% since 2001.
In its own summation, the Eno Center noted that more
research needs to be done to understand the trends that affect air service in
individual metropolitan areas. The economic crash of 2008, low fuel prices, a
nationwide regional airline pilot shortage and consolidation have all impacted
the U.S. airline industry over the past decade.
One person who has delved deeper into the impact that
consolidation, in particular, has had on airline service across the U.S. is
In a peer-reviewed study titled "Impact of airline
mergers on passenger welfare," which was published in May by the journal
Transportation Research, Vaze and two other scientists used a mathematical
formula to assess the impact that each of the five major airline mergers
between 2005 and 2013 have had on passengers.
Included in the measure of passenger welfare were such
factors as prices, flight frequencies, the number of nonstop and one-stop
markets served and the time it takes to complete itineraries.
The researchers found that the Delta-Northwest merger of
2008 and the United-Continental merger of 2010 had an overall positive impact
on U.S. flyers, while the 2005 US Airways-America West merger, the 2011
Southwest-AirTran merger and the 2013 American-US Airways merger were neutral
More significant than the nationwide findings, though, were
regional trends, Vaze said. The researchers found that after a merger, the
passengers in the home region of the surviving carrier see gains in passenger
welfare, while those in the region where the subsumed carrier had its larger
network either gain less or lose.
For example, after the United merger with Continental,
people flying within the western region, where United had hubs in Denver and
San Francisco, saw drops in airfare and gains in connectivity, while people
flying within the southern region, where United assumed the Houston hub that
had been run by Continental, experienced the opposite.
Though reducing the number of hubs nationwide -- Memphis and
Cincinnati are again examples -- is one obvious result of consolidation, Vaze
said that his study showed no broader discrepancy between the way consolidation
has impacted big airports and medium ones.