TIA Faces Phoenix Factor
By JACK GILLUM
Loss of air service here, fare hikes driving more fliers to Sky Harbor again
In the last year, Tucson International Airport began offering unprecedented advantages to local travelers that discouraged the long-standing practice of flying from Phoenix.
With 30 non-stop destinations at the start of 2008, TIA built up an abundance of destinations for local travelers, and relatively cheap fares.
But now Tucson fliers may find themselves enticed again by Sky Harbor International Airport as rising fares and diminishing choices in Tucson make the drive or ride up I-10 seem more worthwhile.
“It saves me a lot of money because of the price of gas,” said Earline Deckter, a Tucson traveler who flew from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport last week after getting a ride on the Arizona Shuttle. “It’s dependable, and you get to sleep.”
Peter Evans, owner of Arizona Shuttle, said he has seen a steady rise this year – about 5 percent to 10 percent – in business on his van service from Tucson to Sky Harbor.
Airfares, too, indicate that travelers like Deckter may also be more inclined to fly out of Sky Harbor.
A search of ticket prices from Tucson to 10 cities next month revealed that flying from Tucson, compared with Phoenix, was more expensive in all but three instances. One had a difference of more than $70, but that does not include greater differences when flying with, say, a family of four.
By comparison, an Arizona Daily Star review of ticket prices in November 2007 found Phoenix was cheaper in six out of 10 instances.
Last fall, Tucson was enjoying flights from many airlines, including ExpressJet Airlines, which will be cutting its branded service in September. Services such as ExpressJet opened Tucson travelers to many midsize cities, like Spokane, Wash.; Reno, Nev.; and Omaha, Neb.
But even with the 41 percent decrease in flights this year, the airport isn’t conceding it has become less competitive.
In a press release issued last week, Tucson Airport Authority Chief Executive Bonnie Allin said, “Tucsonans will continue to have excellent travel options and competitive fares from TIA.”
Still, TAA’s vice president of finance and administration, Dick Gruentzel, said with the loss of flights, “there’s no question that some of our revenues are going to be down” in the next fiscal year.
TIA officials said passenger activity next month will reflect the full impact of nationwide flight reductions.
As of Sept. 3, 10 airlines will provide daily non-stop service to 18 cities, a level the airport was at near the end of 2006.
The losses at TIA reflect the same pain airports – and passengers – are feeling nationwide.
Airports like Albuquerque International Sunport and Reno-Tahoe International Airport have said they’ve been hit as airlines across the United States are dealing with higher-than-average crude-oil prices.
The scenario means trouble for airports the size of Tucson’s, explained Debby McElroy, executive vice president for policy and external affairs at the Airports Council International-North America in Washington, D.C. She said while “airports large and small are experiencing a reduction in service and higher ticket prices,” medium-size airports like Tucson are showing larger decreases in the number of scheduled flights.
The number of such flights from Tucson will drop by about 26 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008, she said, compared with the fourth quarter last year. Sky Harbor, by comparison, will see an 11 percent reduction during the same period.
Airport taking steps
TAA spokeswoman Paula Winn said the airport is doing what it has always done to mitigate the loss of flights: working with airlines to keep them aware of market opportunities, keeping operating costs low and increasing public awareness of existing air service through ad campaigns.
Meanwhile, at least one business has been working to take advantage of a double-whammy: the decrease in flights and the cost of gas that prevents Tucsonans from driving 100-plus miles up the road to Sky Harbor. Evans’ shuttle charges $68 per person for a round-trip journey from Tucson to Sky Harbor.
“We think that the big factor is the loss of flights out of Tucson,” Evans said. “We think we’ll see a greater impact when some of the flights that have been announced will be cut.”
For now, TIA officials are optimistic that, just like the lull after the Sept. 11 attacks, there will eventually be an upswing in choices for its fliers.
“Really, what recovery means is being in position for when the time is right,” said Alex Kovach, the airport’s director of air service research and development.
“We did a lot of research and market analysis, and we positioned ourselves really well.”
Airfares are becoming more expensive when travelers fly from Tucson instead of Phoenix. Below is a sampling of fares from major airlines for a weekend trip departing Friday, Sept. 19, and returning Monday, Sept. 22, comparing 10 destinations from both Tucson International Airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The cities were the same the Arizona Daily Star examined when comparing Tucson-versus-Phoenix fares in November 2007.
Seven of the routes had cheaper prices from Phoenix when gas cost was factored in, and Tucson was cheaper or showed little difference on three other routes. Positive values mean Phoenix is cheaper, and negative values mean Tucson is cheaper.
Destination From Tucson From Phoenix Difference
Minneapolis $378.66 $303.75 $74.91
San Francisco $312.66 $253.75 $58.91
Chicago (O’Hare) $332.66 $291.75 $40.91
Los Angeles $222.66 $186.75 $35.91
Seattle $308.66 $290.75 $17.91
Atlanta $350.66 $336.75 $13.91
Ontario, Calif. $202.66 $193.75 $8.91
Austin, Texas $233.66 $232.75 $0.91
Kansas City, Mo. $232.66 $253.75 -$21.09
New York (JFK) $376.66 $406.75 -$30.09
*Gas costs measured from Interstate 10 and W. Cortaro Farms Road Source: Kayak.com
* Contact reporter Jack Gillum at 573-4178 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published by JACK GILLUM, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.
(c) 2008 Arizona Daily Star. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.