(This is a story we wrote for NBC News)
Airlines service cuts that ramped up this summer show no sign of relenting this holiday season, leaving more travelers likely to pay higher fares for fuller planes at crowded airports.
Service has been slashed in half from pre-pandemic levels at 59 small and regional U.S. airports, according to the Regional Airline Association, largely because of pilot shortages and high fuel costs. As of last month, 112 airports had lost at least a third of their flights, the RAA’s review of flight schedules shows, out of 430 U.S. airports with scheduled passenger service.
“The drastic decline between 2019 and 2022 is dramatic and, if not unprecedented, only rivaled by post-9/11 loss,” said Faye Malarkey Black, the RAA’s president and CEO. And while dozens of small cities receive federal subsidies to support air travel through the long-running Essential Air Service program, Malarkey Black said even 29 of those communities are facing potential cutbacks due to pilot shortages.
“And I believe the knife is still falling,” she added, with more reductions expected by year’s end.
Americans already face pricier airfares this season. The travel platform Hopper has forecast Thanksgiving and Christmas airfares to be the highest in five years, with domestic round-trip tickets averaging $350 over Thanksgiving and $463 at Christmas. Overall, airfares were up by a whopping 43% in October from the same month a year ago, the latest inflation data show.
More headaches for communities with no air service
“Travelers who need to drive far to reach another airport and pay for short- or long-term parking while they are on their trip are likely to see total costs for holiday travel rise this year,” said Hopper’s lead economist, Hayley Berg. Hotel stays and extra meals before or after those flights will also eat into wallets.
For the regional flights that do remain, “fares are up markedly as a result of service cuts,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Ithaca Tompkins International Airport in New York, for example, lost its twice-daily American Airlines flight to Philadelphia on Sept. 6. On the remaining United Airlines route to Newark, New Jersey, and the Delta Air Lines route to Detroit, Hopper found the fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas at Tompkins to be around double the national average for domestic round-trip flights. Round-trip Thanksgiving airfare from Ithaca to U.S. destinations is averaging $552, 39% higher than at the same time in 2019, according to Hopper. And Christmas flights from the city cost 10% more than 2019, at $605.
Major U.S. carriers have cited pilot shortages for their cuts at regional airports, with some of them saying the labor crunch would take years to resolve.
United didn’t comment on the potential for further trims. It said it “regularly adjusts its schedule for a variety of reasons including demand, the broader needs of our network and more.”
American, which has left 15 cities since 2020, still has 100 regional aircraft on the ground that it doesn’t have enough pilots to fly, said spokeswoman Andrea Koos, who added that the airline is working with its three wholly owned regional carriers “to ensure we’re able to operate a more reliable regional schedule in the future.”
Delta said that it hasn’t pulled out of any airports entirely since 2020 and that its staffing challenges are in line with the industry’s.
So far, however, consumers appear undeterred. Nearly half of holiday travelers plan to fly, up from 37% last year, according to the 2022 Deloitte Holiday Travel survey. Those looking to save some money should consider shifting their celebration dates by a few days, travel experts say, or at least avoiding the busiest days to dodge the highest fares at regional airports and larger hubs alike.
Hopper said it expects comparatively lower ticket prices on the Monday before Thanksgiving, on Thanksgiving Day, and on the Friday afterward compared with the Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. And for Christmas, Hopper suggests looking at flights on the Monday or Tuesday before the holiday, which falls on a weekend this year.
Tips to Tackle Holiday Travel
If you’re driving to an airport, check for discount parking coupons there or at nearby lots. And make a parking reservation so you don’t risk being turned away from a full lot. If you need to book a hotel so you can catch an early flight, explore “Park, Stay, Fly” rates at hotels near your airport, which often combine a week or more of parking with a one-night stay.
Holiday travelers should also scan Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Tuesday sales posted by travel booking platforms, hotel chains, and individual properties — many of which are already live. While there will be blackout dates, some of the promotions may include discounted or upgraded stays at airport hotels over the holidays.
In the meantime, some airports in cities suffering cutbacks say they’re fighting to restore lost service.
“The loss of flights has affected businesses and educational institutions in our area,” said Roxan Noble, the director of Tompkins International Airport in Ithaca. She said she’s spending a lot of time on the phone and on Zoom asking major carriers to return or increase their service.
“We’re also looking for a low-cost carrier to come in to serve our leisure market,” she said. “It may not fully fill the gap, but it would help.”
Toledo Express Airport in Ohio lost American Airlines flights to Chicago and to Charlotte, North Carolina, leaving only the ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant offering Toledo residents service to Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona, and to three Florida locations — Fort Myers/Punta Gorda, Orlando/Sanford and Tampa/St. Petersburg — albeit with nondaily flights.
“All airports are vying for the same aircraft, the same pilots, the same crews,” said Joe Cappel, the vice president of business development for the Toledo-Luca County Port Authority in Ohio. So, in addition to putting competitive incentive packages in front of airlines, Toledo Express is also offering to help new airlines with everything from marketing and advertising to baggage handling. “Anything you can think of is on the table,” he said.
And Dubuque — where the lack of air service “disconnects [the city] from the global marketplace,” according to Molly Grover, the president and CEO of the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce — has just hired a public relations firm to help pool the efforts of similarly affected communities to work on restoring air service.
“Commercial air service is an expected amenity to both businesses and residents alike,” Grover said, promising to work “relentlessly, tenaciously” to restore it
Thanks for visiting Stuck at the Airport. Subscribe to get daily travel tidbits. And follow me on Twitter at @hbaskas and Instagram.