If you’re having a hard time finding short-haul flights to small and medium-size cities, it’s not your imagination.
A new study by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that the elimination of thousands of flights of less than 500 miles is one result of the airline industry’s efforts to prosper in the face of higher fuel costs and economic turbulence in the last few years.
Another tactic airlines have used to rebound from the dismal financial times that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession: Packing more passengers in bigger planes so that the chances of stretching out to an adjacent empty seat are almost nil.
The good news is that airlines have seen profits grow in the last few years, the report said. It noted that the nation’s largest airlines earned about $5 billion in profits in 2011, up from 2002 when the industry lost a combined total of $9.2 billion. In addition, the airlines have improved on-time performance and cut the number of canceled flights.
But the bad news for passengers is that five airlines now serve 85% of the market in the U.S., compared with 2000 when 10 airlines served more than 90% of the market. In addition, airlines have eliminated thousands of flights, especially short-haul flights using smaller planes.
Of the 457 airports in the country, 61 have lost half or more of the carriers serving their communities over the last five years. Meanwhile, the number of flights of less than 500 miles have been cut by 3,000 a day in that same period, according to the report.
The hardest-hit cities have been Cincinnati, with a 63% cut in scheduled flights; Pittsburgh, with 40% fewer flights; and Memphis, with 35.5% fewer flights, according to the report.
“The industry’s strategies of consolidating airlines, cutting flights and raising fares have produced positive financial results,” the report concluded.
A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation’s airlines, said the industry has cut many domestic flights and reduced seating but only to better match demand.
Follow Hugo Martin on Twitter at @hugomartin