November 26, 2011 in Business

Fuel cost grounds smaller planes

Some cities seeing loss of connector routes
Joshua Freed Associated Press
 

MINNEAPOLIS – The little planes that connect America’s small cities to the rest of the world are slowly being phased out.

Airlines are getting rid of these planes – their least-efficient – in response to the high cost of fuel. Delta, United Continental and other big airlines are expected to park, scrap or sell hundreds of jets with 50 seats or fewer in coming years. Small propeller planes are meeting the same fate.

The loss of those planes is leaving some little cities with fewer flights or no flights at all.

The Airports Council International says 27 small airports in the continental U.S., including St. Cloud, Minn., and Oxnard, Calif., have lost service from well-known commercial airlines over the last two years. More shutdowns are planned.

Roger Geraets, who works for an online education company based near St. Cloud, flies at least twice a month from Minneapolis. He used to connect from St. Cloud. Now he drives, leaving an extra half-hour for bad traffic. There are other headaches. Parking at St. Cloud was free, but in Minneapolis it costs $14 per day. And getting through airport security in Minneapolis takes longer.

Pierre, S.D., will lose Delta flights to Minneapolis in mid-January. Pierre officials are waiting to find out whether those flights will be replaced or whether the city will be left with only Great Lakes Airlines flights to Denver. The Denver flights add almost 600 miles in the wrong direction for people who want to fly from South Dakota’s capital to Washington, D.C.

In the late 1990s, when jet fuel cost one-fourth of today’s prices, the small jets and turboprops were a profitable way for airlines to connect people in small cities to the rest of the world. The flights attracted business travelers who tended to pay more for tickets.

Then jet fuel prices soared. They’re at $3.16 per gallon today, up from 78 cents in 2000. That’s changed the economics of small planes.

Delta is moving away from small jets more aggressively than other airlines. It will eliminate 121 50-seat jets from October 2008 through the end of next year. That will leave it with 324.

Some Delta routes served by 50-seaters are getting bigger planes instead.

American Eagle, which feeds traffic to its corporate sibling American Airlines, owns 39 of the 37-seaters. But 17 of them were parked as of the end of last year. Parent company AMR Corp. had been trying to sell some of those planes in 2009 but couldn’t get any buyers.

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