Without JetBlue, fares from Pittsburgh to New York City go sky high

Other airlines hike prices after low-cost carrier drops route

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It didn't take David Brooks long to learn how wallet-unfriendly trips to New York City from Pittsburgh can be without JetBlue Airways.

Accustomed to $200 round-trip fares to the Big Apple, Mr. Brooks was shocked to find that the cheapest ticket for a flight to a meeting in New York on Wednesday was about $874. That, he said, was even more than his boss paid for a flight from London to New York for the same meeting.

"I think it's a bit of a disgrace to be honest, but what can you do about it?" he said.

Mr. Brooks, who works for American Metal Market in Pittsburgh, isn't the only one feeling the pain. Air fares to New York are taking off, now that discount carrier JetBlue has abandoned the market after failing to make money on the route.

Some last-minute, round-trip coach fares from Pittsburgh have soared as high as $838. Others are running as high as $617 when booked more than two weeks in advance.

Even tickets purchased well in advance, which at one time could be had for as little as $100 to $120 round trip, now are averaging about $215, said Ellen Wiener, vice president of Atlas Travel, Downtown.

"The fares in general are going to be a little bit higher because of JetBlue. It's a major airline out of the market," she said.

JetBlue ended its two daily flights from Pittsburgh International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 27. The airline had been credited with driving down fares by 20 percent since entering the market in 2006 with four flights a day, later trimmed to two a day.

When the airline announced its decision to drop the flights in November, direct flights to New York were running as low as $116 round trip. In response, the three other carriers that fly to the city -- US Airways, American and Delta -- almost immediately increased ticket prices for dates after Feb. 27.

And those higher rates have held up. For example, a traveler booking a nonstop flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport next Monday, returning to Pittsburgh Tuesday, would pay $728 round trip on US Airways and $837.80 on Delta. On Expedia, the flight is slightly less at $680. For a flight into JFK, the cost would be $847.80 on Delta and $728 on American.

Even going a little further out on the calendar doesn't help much. A flight to LaGuardia on March 25, returning the next day, would cost $612 on US Airways and $617.80 on Delta. Flights to JFK for the same days would run $627.80 on Delta and $618 on American.

There are exceptions. Some round-trip flights, booked weeks in advance, can be obtained for as low as $197 but they usually require longer stays. Short-stay weekday flights, the bread and butter of most business travelers, are typically the highest priced.

Some local corporations are able to avoid the pinch through agreements or contracts with preferred carriers, such as US Airways, that take into account domestic and international travel needs.

The ones hurt the most by the higher fares are small business people and individuals, said Craig "Buzz" Conroy, an aviation researcher and author.

"It's predatory, just like predatory lenders," he said of the markups. "That's the only thing you can say."

While security costs and increases in fuel prices no doubt have driven up air fares, "To say they couldn't do it at a more reasonable rate, they sure could. It's a matter of choosing not to," Mr. Conroy said.

He pointed out the same thing occurred when Southwest Airlines dropped its service to Philadelphia last year, leaving US Airways as the sole carrier on the route. Round-trip fares shot up from $118 to $698.

"When a low-cost carrier goes down, the others go into a feeding frenzy," he said.

Spokesmen for US Airways and American Airlines declined to comment on the fares, saying they don't discuss pricing strategies. Delta did not return a phone call.

However, Todd Lehmacher, the US Airways spokesman, said, "Having an airline serve a route that is priced competitively -- while still covering costs -- is in everyone's best interest for continued, healthy and sustainable air service and necessary to maintain a robust, healthy airline industry that historically has lost more money than it has made."

Mr. Brooks, who prefers to fly US Airways, ended up booking a one-stop flight to New York through Philadelphia for about $500 for his meeting this week. Then, because of the snowstorm, he decided to change his schedule and fly out Tuesday rather than Wednesday.

Oddly enough, he ended up with a $615 nonstop flight to the Big Apple, far less than the $874 nonstop fare he originally found, but still higher than what he had paid in the past.

Ms. Wiener said things could get worse.

The proposed US Airways-American merger could drive fares higher. That, coupled with potential reductions in air traffic controllers because of federal budget cuts, could make flying even more expensive and more of a hassle.

"It's pretty much a mess any way you look at it," she said. "It's scary when Megabus is looking to be your best option."

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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