Flying to Philadelphia? Unbuckle the purse
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Fly US Airways in and out of Philadelphia from Pittsburgh on Jan. 4, and the nonrefundable round-trip fare would be $118, before taxes.
Take those same nonstop flights a week later, and the US Airways fare jumps to $698.
Information on fares was collected Monday afternoon on the airline's website.
Why the reason for the change?
Southwest Airlines, the only major competitor to US Airways on that route, will end its nonstop service between the two cities on Jan. 8.
Airline analyst Michael Boyd, who had predicted a big jump in Pittsburgh-Philadelphia airfares once Southwest ended service, wasn't surprised by the news.
"That's what happens when you have less competition," he said Monday. Mr. Boyd is president of Boyd Group International, an airline consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo.
Neither was JoAnn Jenny, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates Pittsburgh International Airport. "We had asked the community to support those Southwest flights, but passengers weren't choosing them," she said. "The company could not afford to keep operating."
US Airways flights to Philadelphia were about three-quarters full, while Southwest planes were barely half-filled. "Southwest was dying on that route," Mr. Boyd said.
Don't blame Pittsburgh passengers for the loss of that airline's service, he said. They were, at least in the short term, making intelligent decisions in picking the dominant carrier. US Airways offered advance seat selection, early boarding and frequent-flier miles through the Star Alliance system, which could be redeemed on a number of major airlines.
"If fares are the same, you'd tend to go with US Airways," he said. "The Southwest product wasn't competitive with business travelers who want to build frequent-flier miles and know where they are sitting."
The loss of competition and jump in prices, however, didn't sit well with Witold Walczak, who found out last week that the cost for his once- or twice-a-month flights across the state would increase more than five-fold in January.
"Unless you are or work for the one percent, these prices are prohibitive," he said. "This is price gouging of the worst sort ... the free market is really sticking it to the little guy.
Mr. Walczak is the legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. His reference was to the "one percent" of most affluent Americans who control a large portion of the nation's wealth.
The effect of the higher fares on nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU, would be fewer or longer, less productive business trips, he said. It is impossible to travel to and from Philadelphia in a day via Amtrak and impractical via the low-cost Megabus intercity bus service. "I'll probably end up driving more," he said.
Valerie Wunder, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said federal Department of Transportation restrictions limit how much the company can say about its pricing policies. "We do try to set fares based on what we think the market will bear," she said.
Travelers willing to accept layovers in Detroit or Washington, D.C., still can find round-trip bargains flights well under $200 for mid-January. One option, offered via the Orbitz travel website, combines an early morning flight to Newark and an Amtrak train to Philadelphia. Its base price, before taxes and fees, is $117.
One-way travel time for the one-stop flights, however, ranges between four and six hours. That makes flying comparable with driving the 305 miles between the two cities via the turnpike.
Ms. Jenny warned Pittsburgh travelers that another lower-cost route was in danger if traffic didn't pick up. JetBlue offers service twice a day to New York's JFK Airport.
"If those flights don't fill up, the airline will cease offering that service," she said. "If JetBlue goes away, the same thing that is happening to Philadelphia fares will happen to the New York fares," she predicted.
She encouraged JFK-bound passengers to go JetBlue. "Try it every other time or once in two or three flights," she urged.
First Published November 29, 2011 12:00 am