The Travel Detective

How Airline Mergers Changed Travel Within the U.S.

Locations in this article:  Atlanta, GA Chicago, IL Dallas, TX Madison, WI New Orleans, LA San Diego, CA St. Louis, MO

airlinesAs eight of the largest air carriers have merged into four major airlines, many smaller connecting hubs have been downsized or shut down—and some routes have been eliminated entirely.

While the biggest impact has been at small and medium-sized airports, passengers are feeling the crunch all over the country. Airlines are reducing schedules and removing redundant flights in order to maximize profits. These changes are not just inconvenient—they’re also expensive—because fewer flights mean higher fares.

Here’s how some cities in the U.S. have been affected by airline mergers.

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis was once a hub for Northwest Airlines. It went from a peak of 240 flights a day to fewer than 100 when Northwest merged with Delta, whose Atlanta hub is only a few hundred miles from Memphis.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati is another city that’s felt the effects of the Northwest-Delta merger. In its heyday, 500 Delta flights departed from that airport each day. That number is now less than 100.

What does this mean for travelers?

Well, if you’re trying to get to Jacksonville, Madison, New Orleans, or San Diego, the news is not good. Delta has eliminated service to all of those cities—and drastically reduced service to almost a dozen other locations.

Cleveland, Ohio

It’s a similar story in another city in Ohio. Two years ago, United Airlines shut down its hub in Cleveland, eliminating nearly four dozen nonstop destinations.

When United merged with Continental, many of the nonstop flights were re-routed through United’s hub at Chicago O’Hare. This caused major headaches—particularly for business travelers who frequently got delayed—or worse yet, stuck—in the windy city.

St. Louis, Missouri

When American Airlines purchased TWA in 2001, the airline planned to keep TWA at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The airline even expanded the hub to ease congestion in American’s Dallas and Chicago hubs.

But then came 9/11—and the decline in air travel—followed by the great recession.

So instead of building up its St. Louis operations, American cut flights into and out of that city. The airport has experienced a steady decline in passengers—from a high of over 30.5 million in 2000—to under 12 million in 2015.

Ontario, California

The economy has also had a dramatic effect on the Ontario Airport in Southern California. Before the economic downturn in 2008, more than seven million people traveled through the airport—as compared to a total of four million people in 2014.

Fewer passengers equaled higher ticket prices at the smaller airport, prompting travelers to drive 60 miles west to LAX in search of lower fares.

So Is There Any Good News?

Is there any good news here for travelers? Well, there may be some on the horizon.

In St. Louis, there are plans for a new terminal focused on cargo operations, which could also help to increase passenger traffic to the underserved airport.

In places like Memphis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, low cost and regional airlines such as Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant are picking up routes abandoned by legacy carriers. That could translate to more choices and lower prices.

But if you still can’t find a way to get where you’re going, what are your options?

For a number of travelers, the solution happens to be a three-letter word, especially if you’re traveling under 600 miles. It’s called the bus.

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