In a few weeks, I’m headed to Philadelphia, one of USAirways’ main hubs, from Charlotte, yet another USAir "fortress hub". In fact, it’s darned hard to fly anywhere on USAirways that you don’t wind up in Charlotte, DC, Philly or Pittsburgh on some leg of your trip. So let’s look at the fares.
First, the lowest – for $178 round trip, I can take Northwest to Philly through Memphis. For $182 round trip, I can take Delta through Atlanta.
Now, let’s look at USAirways’ hub to hub flights for roundtrip Charlotte to Philly. The cheapest on Expedia is $412, the same on the USAirways site is $407 since I wouldn’t need to pay the $5 Expedia booking fee. Seem a bit extreme? Yup. And weird. Very weird. A few years ago the airlines announced that fares would make more sense and that you could no longer drive to a smaller airport and get cheaper fares on the same flights from hubs. Mmmmkay…. I live about 30-45 minutes from the Charlotte airport, about an hour from the Greensboro airport. Hardly enough to worry about given the amount of time killed in airports these days thanks to heightened security and lowered on-time ratings. Let’s check Greensboro to Philly, shall we?
The lowest this time is United with a round trip fare of $219, but for $20 more, I can take direct USAirways flights to and from Philly at $239. I can even fly into Charlotte and take the same $407 flight for about that. Now, let’s say this consumes (on the high side) $20 more fuel (it’s not even close to this, even with today’s gas prices). I can drive 15-30 min longer and save about $150. Yep, this makes a *lot* more sense. About as much sense as the $50 paid upgrade from economy to 1st class (available to anyone, not just tier frequent fliers) vs. the $800+ first class ticket.
Maybe the best first step for the airlines to bring themselves back from the brink of financial disaster is to realize that the passengers are customers, not cargo or cattle – and they aren’t stupid. Considering that my last two flights required 10 hours total (each) after factoring in "get there early", delayed flights, enhanced security and other air travel annoyances (like waiting for luggage that must now be checked so you can brush your teeth), with only 2 hours of the 10 actually "in the air", airline travel is rapidly becoming neither faster nor more convenient.
Consider this for Charlotte to Atlanta round trip:
Airline – $202 (Delta), 3 hours in air, 4 hours pre-flight (2 hours per trip), total transit time 7 hours.
Amtrak – $101, 5 hours travel time each way, total transit time 10 hours.
Bus – $100, 4 hours travel time each way, total transit time 8 hours.
Driving – $100 (gas, estimated), 4 hours drive time each way, total transit time 8 hours.
How long before regular travelers on this route seriously consider trading in those 2-3 hours trying to entertain themselves in airports for a business class seat on a train where they can brush their teeth, read a book and not stand somewhere waiting on an overnight bag.