Attention: Your favorite airline is not a charity

L.A. wants a fair price for L.A/Ontario International Airport, which it has operated since 1967. Staff file photo.

L.A./Ontario International Airport is often empty. But do airlines care? Not really.  Staff file photo.

“Airlines are not a charity.”

This is what an acquaintance of mine – a person who understands airline economics – tells me whenever I ask why an airline is charging a high fare in a particular market or why it has added a new fee. The general gist is that most U.S. airlines are publicly traded corporations with shareholders they must keep happy. They must make business-minded decisions about how and when to fly their planes.

The problem with this strategy, which has become more pronounced in recent years as airlines have learned how they can keep profits up, is that it is leaving air service holes in small and medium sized cities. Many non-hub airports, like L.A./Ontario International Airport in California’s Inland Empire, cannot support a lot of air service in the current economic climate. And airlines are no longer interested in flying routes just because they always have done so.

This is a topic New York Times business travel columnist Joe Sharkey addressed this week. I think he lives in Tuscon, which is facing its own challenges, though it still has flights to most airline hubs. Sharkey writes:

Across the country, cities where airline service has been reduced and long-haul nonstop routes eliminated in recent years are clamoring for new flights. Many dangle financial incentives in the hopes that an airline will add an extra flight or two to the local schedule. The justification they cite is that local airports are powerful economic engines, central to business development and a sense of civic pride.

I suppose the question is whether you think airlines should serve smaller markets almost out of a sense of duty, or whether you think they should be permitted to fly whatever routes are most profitable for them. The market has already spoken on this issue — airlines are chasing profits — but not everyone agrees with what has happened. I hear often from advocates for L.A./Ontario International who believe airlines should add flights there to cut down on the number of car trips local residents must make to LAX. But airlines don’t really care if travelers who live near the Ontario airport must drive more than an hour to get to LAX. How you get to the airport is up to you.

As we know, many airports are chasing relatively little air service. Sharkey writes of Pittsburgh, where the market for new flights is soft:

Hope, of course, springs eternal. For example, Pittsburgh International Airport, still reeling from the effects of US Airways closing its huge hub there in 2004, is offering financial incentives and even looking for a new top executive in a major drive to entice new service. In 2009, with much of its international traffic gone, Pittsburgh offered $9 million in subsidies to persuade Delta Air Lines to begin a nonstop route to Paris. That service operates seasonally five days a week (this year starting April 27).

What do you think? Should airlines be more cognizant of doing the right thing to ensure that midsize cities aren’t left without connections to major cities? Or should they simply be able to fly to whatever cities are most profitable?

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  • fuzdis

    Friend’s right, airlines are not charities. Consolidation is only natural in this market. However, it’s still annoying when it’s harder to navigate an airline’s fee and pricing structure than it is the streets of Los Angeles.