Airline ticket prices have taken off in some cities that have seen sharp drops in domestic air service, while some airports that gained flights saw prices slide, a USA TODAY Network analysis of domestic fares at the nation's 100 busiest airports shows.
The findings underscore the law of supply and demand:
• Cincinnati, which has lost 80% of its domestic airline seats since the start of 2005, saw the average ticket price increase 26%. Salt Lake City, where fares rose 18% between the first quarters of 2005 and 2013, is down 21% in seats.
• Charlotte Douglas, San Francisco and Denver International airports, where domestic seats for sale increased, saw domestic fares decline on average by 18%.
Overall, between the first quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of 2013, prices have risen 6.5% on average, after inflation, at the top 100 airports in the 48 contiguous states. But fares varied widely from airport to airport, and several experienced increases that were far greater.
Some of the flight cutbacks resulted from a flurry of major airline mergers that have led carriers to pare service at some airports while they focus on hubs that are more profitable. And the industry has generally become more disciplined about matching service to demand.
"Mergers have allowed the removal of redundant capacity,'' says William Swelbar, a research engineer with MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. And "consolidation of service gives ... some pricing power.''
The analysis found other patterns:
• Secondary airports in metro areas with multiple airports tended to see greater fare hikes than their primary counterparts, as airlines consolidated service at those primary portals. Domestic airfares at Manchester Boston-Regional and Theodore Francis Green State in Providence increased 10% and 7% respectively, compared with a 2% increase at Boston Logan. Fares decreased at San Francisco International while increasing 9% at San Jose and 6% at Oakland's Metropolitan International Airport.
• Some airports where Southwest had a strong presence also experienced a sharp spike in fares. Dallas Love Field saw fares escalate 36%, Houston's Hobby saw a jump of 24%, and Chicago Midway International saw fares rise 22%. The low-cost carrier has increased fares in recent years to deal with the escalating price of fuel and no longer is having as strong an impact on keeping fares low as previously, industry watchers say.
Still, Southwest's presence overall, along with other low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers such as JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier, can help keep fares in check. And airfares remain lower today than they were in the '90s.
Ultimately, airlines don't want to inflict so much sticker shock that they scare passengers away.
"Yes, there will be pockets of pain out there,'' Swelbar says. But the "industry has to be careful not to raise prices too much, too fast ... Air travel is still a very, very good bargain.''