June 26, 2008

American Cuts 30 More Flights Out of Lambert

By Tim Logan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jun. 26--It's going to get harder to get places by air.

On Wednesday, we started to find out just how much harder.

American Airlines said it will slash 30 flights a day from its schedule at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport this fall, part of a systemwide cutback announced last month to help it cope with a crippling surge in oil prices.

From St. Louis, American will end direct flights to four airports, among them Baltimore and New York's JFK International Airport, and will trim flights to at least 15 more, from Seattle to Boston, Dayton to Des Moines.

All told, after the cuts take effect late in November, Lambert's biggest airline and its regional affiliates will have 116 daily flights from St. Louis, down from 146 at the start of June, and down sharply from the 207 it had after massive cutbacks in 2003. And with oil prices topping $130 a barrel, analysts say, there's no sign that the robust air service St. Louis knew for decades will return any time soon.

"It's gone," said Michael Boyd, an airline analyst in Evergreen, Colo. "This is probably just the first of many shoes to fall."

For travelers, the cuts will mean fewer choices, more connecting flights, and less flexibility about when you can fly somewhere.

American stresses that the places it's cutting direct flights to are still accessible via Chicago or Dallas, and other airlines serve each of the four direct from Lambert. But the last vestiges of St. Louis as a hub, rich with air connections, are falling away. And that stings, said Tammy King, of St. Louis, who was at the airport Wednesday catching a flight to Washington.

She remembers when you could fly from here to London and Paris during the days of Trans World Airlines. No more. Now Lambert serves as a regional hub for American, and even those connections are reduced.

"I hate to say it because I love St. Louis," King said. "But I think our options are significantly lessened."

Of course, it's not just St. Louis. American is cutting service this year by 12 percent systemwide. Other airlines have similar plans.

The problem is that fuel prices have made it impossible for many airlines to make money flying some routes.

The cost of operating a 50-seat regional jet has climbed 45 percent since January, Boyd said, and, on competitive routes, airlines can't charge enough to make up for it. The costs for smaller planes, which are less fuel efficient, have climbed even faster. To cope, he said, airlines must fly less and charge more.

"The basic economics of air service have changed," Boyd said. "It doesn't have anything to do with St. Louis."

Yet it will hurt here. The question is how much.

Economists tout air service links as key to a region's growth. Companies will often look at direct flights when deciding where to locate a facility. And many in the tourism trade say the more flights, the better.

When it comes to air service, St. Louis still stacks up well compared to some of its peer cities, said Richard Fleming, president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. But the health of the airlines is important to the health of the region.

"We still think we're well-positioned in the long term," Fleming said. "But clearly it's going to be important for American and Southwest Airlines to be able to make money here."

It's also unclear how much hassle leisure travelers will put up with, said Kathleen "Kitty" Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. When will fewer flights, higher fares, luggage fees and stingy on-board perks add up to people staying home?

"How many of those things have to occur before somebody says, 'I'm not going to fly?'" Ratcliffe said. "We just don't know yet."

Other airlines may pick up some of the flights in St. Louis, said Lambert Director Richard Hrabko. That's what happened after American cut back here in 2003; Southwest beefed up its presence and today has 79 daily flights. But, Hrabko acknowledged, soaring oil prices are squeezing all the airlines, making them choosier about opening new routes.

American said it hopes these cuts will help it ride out the rise in prices and create "a more sustainable supply-and-demand balance." But a spokeswoman Wednesday acknowledged that there's no way to know for sure where air travel is heading.

"The industry is so much in flux because of oil prices," said Mary Frances Fagan. "It's almost impossible to predict with any certainty what's going to happen."

Ken Leiser and Jake Wagman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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