In South Florida, the cost for passengers flying domestically out of Fort Lauderdale is $61 less on average than flying from Miami.

Away from the nation's coasts, flying out of Knoxville, Tenn., costs $84 more on average than the almost equally busy Wichita, Kan., airport.

And on the West Coast, it's $60 less expensive on average to fly from Seattle-Tacoma Airport than it is to leave from the larger San Francisco Airport, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data from the first quarter of this year, the most recent it had released.

While the prices of plane tickets clearly vary widely from route to route within any individual airport, the BTS data shows that some airports, as a general rule, are significantly less costly for passengers than others. And more interestingly, those differences play out even among airports from within the same market or that serve similar-size communities, with similar numbers of travelers, in the same general geographic regions.

Without fail, airline industry analysts said that the primary driver of ticket prices is competition. In general, airports that are served by many airlines, especially those in which two or more carriers serve a substantial percentage of city pairs, offer better fares than those in which competition is scant. Passengers at airports with lots of service from low-cost carriers (LCCs) and ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs) also win out.

"Airports that have a lot of service from Southwest and JetBlue tend to have lower fares," said Peter Belobaba, the airline industry program director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Airports that have ULCC service from Spirit or Frontier tend to have even lower fares."

A study completed late last year by Hopper, which tracks GDS searches in order to analyze airfare prices and demand, found that when a discount airline enters a route, it not only offers its own cheap fares, but it brings the prices offered by the major carriers down 20%.

But beyond the question of competition, many more nuanced factors play into making one airport more affordable than another, analysts said. The type of fliers to which an airport caters, regulatory or infrastructure constraints that limit the number of daily takeoffs and arrivals and even the affluence of the community in which the airport is located can all play a part in whether flights in one person's hometown are cheaper or unusually pricey.

Moreover, decisions made by the airports related to fees and airline recruitment play a significant role in attracting or discouraging competition from moving into a location.

With so many factors in play, Belobaba said, the first key when reviewing airport ticket-price data is to remember a couple fundamentals. Chiefly, he said, the average domestic route from airports on the coast is likely to be longer than the average route for centrally located airports. For example, when considering why the BTS data shows that the average domestic itinerary from Los Angeles (LAX) was $24 more expensive in the first three months of this year than itineraries out of Chicago O'Hare, it is crucial to account for the fact that the average flight from LAX is 450 miles longer than the average from O'Hare, according to Hopper.

Along with that issue, Belobaba said, it's essential to understand the mix of travelers on a route. Airports that have a relatively high proportion of business travelers, for example, tend to draw higher fares than heavy leisure-travel markets, where more tickets are booked well in advance and fewer people are flying premium classes.

Still, Belobaba said, even when airports have a similar mix of flights and passenger types, the average ticket prices can vary.

"The size of the market matters," he said. "Airlines operate on economies of scale. So more people, more demand [and] airlines can fly bigger airplanes. Bigger airplanes mean lower cost, lower fares."

Yet it's not always that simple.

Take, for example, Newark's Liberty Airport, which in the first quarter of this year saw an average domestic itinerary of $449, the most of any of the nation's 11 largest airports, according to the BTS. Aside from being on the East Coast, fares at Newark were driven up by a firm cap on the total number of arrivals and departures that had been imposed by the FAA. The airport was also hamstrung by a lack of competition, as United controlled 73% of its landing slots.

The FAA has since made more slots available at Newark, leaving open the possibility that prices will go down beginning in late October and November, when the ULCCs Allegiant and Spirit start service there and several other carriers beef up their Newark schedules.

Ultralow-cost carrier Allegiant will start flying from Newark even though the airport has a cost per enplaned passenger of $28.31.
Ultralow-cost carrier Allegiant will start flying from Newark even though the airport has a cost per enplaned passenger of $28.31.

A community's wealth also correlates to airport ticket prices, according to a 2014 Hopper study, but not in the way one might expect. The cost of airfare, author Patrick Surry found, actually declines by $2.30 for every extra $1,000 in median household income. The reason for this seeming incongruity is that demand for air travel is lower in poorer areas. As a result, airports in those markets tend to draw less competition, thereby driving up prices.

Another factor that plays into competition, and into decisions by airlines about where to serve and with what frequency, are the fees that airports charge the carriers.

Airports charge airlines to rent gate and terminal space. They also charge landing fees, customs fees and baggage handling fees. Together, these various charges make up what is known as the cost per enplaned passenger, and that can vary widely.

In Newark, for example, the 2015 cost per enplaned passenger was $28.31, according to FAA data. At Sanford Airport, north of Orlando, where the average domestic itinerary cost $111 during the first quarter, the cost per enplaned passenger was just $2.03.

Sanford's exceptionally low average airfare can be attributed to the fact that the ULCC Allegiant dominates the airport. Allegiant experimented with operating flights out of the much larger Orlando Airport toward the end of last decade before committing fully to Sanford. Orlando Airport had a cost per enplaned passenger in 2015 of $7.73, modest by national standards but still nearly four times the Sanford fee.

"The cost at Sanford was certainly a key factor in the decision to go there," Keith Hansen, Allegiant's vice president of government affairs and airports, said in an interview.

He cited ease of use for passengers at the small facility as another major factor.

John Heimlich, chief economist for the trade organization Airlines for America (A4A), said there are examples throughout the U.S. commercial aviation network of carriers entering and leaving markets due to airport fees. One example that he recalled involved Southwest, which cited high airport fees as a factor when it pulled out of San Francisco Airport in 2001.

When Southwest returned to the City by the Bay six years later, airline officials noted that San Francisco had reduced airline fees by 30%, according to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.  

Heimlich said high-fee airports are particularly troublesome for LCCs, which need to be able to turn a profit while underselling their competition in order to make their business model work.

"You can't be low cost if the airport is high cost," he said.

Fort Lauderdale’s airport caters more to leisure travelers than nearby Miami, which has more business flyers, resulting in a lower cost per enplaned passenger.
Fort Lauderdale’s airport caters more to leisure travelers than nearby Miami, which has more business flyers, resulting in a lower cost per enplaned passenger.

Following that line of reasoning, low airport fees help explain why Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport is a haven for LCCs and ULCCs such as Allegiant, Spirit, JetBlue, Virgin America and Southwest, while nearby Miami Airport is home to only Frontier among discount domestic operators. At Fort Lauderdale, the cost per enplaned passenger in 2015 was $5.84 compared with Miami's rate of $19.93. Those airports also differ in emphasis, with Fort Lauderdale catering more to the leisure market and Miami more to business travel.

Steve Belleme, the business development manager for Broward County Aviation, which runs the Fort Lauderdale airport, said that one of his primary missions is to keep fees down for the benefit of the leisure travelers who use the facility as a launching point for cruises and beach vacations.

During the first quarter of this year, the average domestic itinerary from Fort Lauderdale was $253, second lowest among the nine airports that had between 1 million and 1.5 million originating passengers, according to the BTS.

"If you're a low-cost carrier you can't go to Miami because there goes your profit margin," Belleme said. "And if you want to be in the middle of the action, you aren't going to go to Palm Beach."

Another fee, this one charged directly to ticket buyers, is the passenger facility charge (PFC), which airports use for infrastructure projects. Under federal passenger facility charge guidelines, airports can charge a fee of up to $4.50 per passenger per flight segment, and according to the FAA, 340 of the 354 airports that charge a fee collect the maximum allowed.

During the recent congressional debate over the reauthorization of FAA funding, airports and travel industry advocates argued for an increase in the passenger facility charge cap in order to facilitate airport infrastructure projects. But A4A successfully fought against an increase, in part due to concerns about the impact that an increase in the cap would have on ticket prices.

At present, five of the 100 largest airports in the U.S. don't charge any passenger facility charges, a step that A4A's Heimlich argues boosts demand from those locales.

"One way to get costs per enplanement down is to get more enplanements, and you're not going to get more enplanements if you are discouraging it with a high PFC," Heimlich said.

One of the five airports that doesn't charge a PFC is Memphis, where the average domestic itinerary during the first quarter was $399, $40 more than the average for airports that saw between 100,000 and 499,000 departures, according to the BTS. But Memphis has been able to attract the ULCCs Allegiant and Frontier despite having a relatively high cost per enplaned passenger fee of $12.07.

Allegiant's Hansen said while airport fees are a key consideration in route selection, they pale next to the bottom-line consideration of whether the public will support a route.

Allegiant's recent decision to move into Newark despite cost per enplaned passengers fees of more than $28 was made because the carrier believes that it can turn a profit serving leisure travelers to and from Newark and the New York metroplex even as it absorbs those fees, Hansen said. Among the carrier's four inaugural destinations from Newark are the popular vacation spots Asheville, N.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Spirit, meanwhile, will service Orlando and Fort Lauderdale with its first flights from Newark.

With so many factors playing into the price of airfare at various airports, it can sometimes be difficult to ferret out why one market offers better prices than another.

Take, for example, Wichita vs. Knoxville. During the first quarter of this year the average itinerary from Wichita cost $406, according to the BTS, while itineraries originating in Knoxville cost $490. But in other respects, the two airports are highly analogous.

Each had between 95,000 and 96,000 originating passengers, according to the BTS. And according to an analysis conducted by Hopper, each airport was served by five airlines during the first quarter. Meanwhile, the difference in the average flight length out of the two airports was just 50 miles, with Wichita having the longer flights.

The runway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Although the airport is similar to San Francisco in passengers served and distance for domestic flights, the average trip out of SeaTac costs $60 less.
The runway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Although the airport is similar to San Francisco in passengers served and distance for domestic flights, the average trip out of SeaTac costs $60 less.

Equally perplexing is the comparison between Seattle's SeaTac airport and SFO in San Francisco. SFO had just fewer than 1.8 million originating passengers in the first quarter, topping SeaTac by 183,000. The average flight length from the two destinations differed by just five miles. And San Francisco's routes generally had more competition, according to an index system used by Hopper.

Still, itineraries from SeaTac averaged $338 while those from SFO averaged $398.

Surry speculated that in the cases of SeaTac vs. SFO and Wichita vs. Knoxville, demographic differences related to community size and household income might be impacting demand and shifting the pricing balance.

"Definitely an interesting avenue to explore more in the future," he said.

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