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The Most Expensive US Airports to Fly To - (com video)

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Can you save some cash by choosing a different airport? WSJ's Scott McCartney joins Tanya Rivero on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty.

It's the frustration that forces savvy fliers to drive to a distant airport or take connecting flights just to land a cheaper fare. Some airports are significantly more expensive than others.

Cincinnati travelers pay a heavy premium: It's most expensive among the 75 largest U.S. airports. Passengers there paid an average 22.2 cents per mile traveled in the fourth quarter of last year. Cheapest per mile among the 75 busiest: San Juan, Puerto Rico, at an average of 10.7 cents, according to Transportation Department data compiled by consulting firm Oliver Wyman's PlaneStats.com.


Cincinnati is the most expensive among the 75 largest U.S. airports. Getty Images/iStockphoto

What you pay for a trip is often determined by what type of plane you're on and the people you're flying with. Airports that serve comparatively wealthy communities typically have higher average fares, academic research shows. The same holds for airports that serve lots of business travelers—they pay more, driving up the price for everyone in the market. Travelers at airports that serve a lot of budget-conscious vacationers typically rank low in average fares.

Airlines "are the world's best price discriminators," said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in the airline industry.

He notes U.S. travelers in general pay more to fly to Europe than Europeans pay to fly to the U.S. because a stronger economy on the U.S. side pushes fares higher for trips that originate in the States.

Longtime airline consultant Dan Kasper of Compass Lexecon in Boston likens it to neighborhood grocery stores. "If I go grocery shopping in a wealthy community, chances are there will be higher prices than in a more midrange community, and the store will probably be stocked with higher-priced items," said Mr. Kasper.

In addition, busy airports with lots of flights to other big airports typically have lower fares, Dr. Brueckner says. More traffic means competition and often bigger airplanes, which are less expensive for airlines to operate per passenger. Airplanes with relatively high per-passenger operating costs, such as older, less fuel-efficient 50-seat regional jets, often end up with higher fares.


Dave Whamond

That's one factor at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, where 83% of the flights are on regional jets, according to the Regional Airline Association.

Cincinnati used to be a major Delta Air Lines hub, but Delta has downsized considerably, dropping from more than 600 flights a day several years ago to fewer than 110 a day now.

Delta still carries 75% of all of Cincinnati's passengers, giving it strong pricing power, said Candace McGraw, chief executive officer at the airport, which is located in Hebron, Ky. She notes airport costs, like landing fees and terminal rents, are low at Cincinnati and aren't driving up prices.

The airport, which doesn't have flights from big low-fare airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, believes attracting more competition will help bring down fares. A year ago ultracheap Frontier Airlines started flying to Cincinnati from Denver, and has added flights to Trenton, N.J., and, beginning Sept. 8, Washington's Dulles International Airport. Allegiant Air flies a couple of times a week to destinations in Florida. That limited competition helped reduce average prices 2.5% last year, but not enough to knock Cincinnati out of the top spot in DOT rankings among large airports.

"It's going to take us a bit to fall down in the rankings," said Ms. McGraw, whose airport also topped the list last year.

What It Costs to Fly at the 75 Busiest U.S. Airports

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International is the most expensive among the 75 largest U.S. airports. Below, a look at them, based on average cost per mile traveled.

Unlike other airports, Cincinnati doesn't offer incentives to airlines for new service because it's prohibited by its current agreement with existing carriers, which expires at the end of 2015. Many airports offer to advertise new flights for airlines to drum up business, waive rent and landing fees for an initial period and even subsidize losses just to boost competition and drive down fares.

A large number of major companies dot the area—Procter & Gamble and Kroger, for example. That makes Cincinnati a strong draw for business travelers who tend to fly on higher-priced tickets because they book closer to departure, want the flexibility of unrestricted full-price fares and sometimes are willing to pay for first or business class.

Delta says Cincinnati is still a hub and local passengers pay for better service, from more flights to a premium airport lounge. "Hubs typically can command added value by offering more nonstop service, frequencies and destinations as well as upgraded airport and onboard amenities," Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.

Nationwide, the DOT says average fares were up 1.8% in the fourth quarter. But some big airports showed far bigger price hikes. In Atlanta, the average fare jumped 6%, Miami was up 7% and New York-La Guardia jumped 9% over the same period of 2012. Honolulu and Maui, Hawaii, had the biggest jumps in average fare with prices up more than 11% each. Memphis, Tenn., where Delta ended its hub operation, opening up the market to new competition, saw prices fall.

United Airlines had five of its big hubs in the top 10 airports for average fare in the fourth quarter among the 75 largest airports. United says there's lots of competition at its hubs, but prices are higher because each has a high mix of business travelers. "It's more a function of people buying long-haul tickets, people buying premium-cabin tickets and people buying at the last minute," United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.

Washington Dulles, for example, has a large concentration of government contractors and technology firms, he noted. "It's not that fares are higher but the mix of people buying them is different," he said.

Small airports pay a high price, too. Airlines cut back flights during the recession and since then have been reluctant to boost service, taking higher prices instead of adding capacity as demand builds for seats. Birmingham, Ala., has seen traffic fall and prices rise, for example.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who once worked in airline pricing, says smaller communities have struggled with higher fares largely because of the 50-seat regional jet. Airlines typically leave few seats available at their lowest prices on a 50-seat plane. They quickly sell and travelers are left with higher prices.

"There just aren't any low-fare seats, and a lot of it is because of small jets," Mr. Boyd said.

When comparing fares per-mile, the length of trips can impact averages. Airports on the coasts with lots of long trips tend to show lower per-mile costs than airports in the middle of the country with shorter flights.

San Juan, Puerto Rico has the cheapest airport of 75 U.S. facilities surveyed. Getty Images/iStockphoto


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