For the first time in memory, airlines are cutting flights into Salt Lake City International Airport even as demand for seats is growing.
In May, the number of flights landing at the airport fell by 2,101 trips, or 15.2 percent fewer than the same month of last year, according to U.S. Transportation Department data.
On the other hand, passenger numbers at Salt Lake City International Airport reached a record 22.2 million travelers last year. The number was 21.1 percent higher than in 2004, or about 4 million more passengers, according to airport figures.
The simultaneous decline in flights and increase in passenger numbers is yielding a degraded landscape that is beginning to bother travelers, experts say. Airlines are flying to more nonstop destinations. But the airlines are cutting the number of times they fly to some cities.
An example: Northwest Airlines flew to Salt Lake from Minneapolis 63 times during May. That was down by 49.2 percent from the same month of 2004. The number of Delta Air Lines flights was down by 610 landings, or 19.0 percent.
At the same time, carriers are using smaller airplanes on many routes, so there's more competition for seats. Ticket prices are higher. Mileage upgrades and frequent-flier travel awards are harder to find.
In June, Delta's domestic load factor - the percentage of seats that are filled - was 84.1 percent, up 3.2 percentage points from last year. Southwest Airlines flew with 80.4 percent of its seats filled, up 4.2 percentage points.
With flights full, airlines are having little trouble increasing fares. To offset high fuel prices, Delta increased ticket prices on most domestic routes by $5 for each one-way segment last week. For the first time, Delta's highest coach-class fares are above $500.
United, Northwest, Continental and American, all of which serve Salt Lake, are evaluating whether to match Delta's increases, If they do, it would be the seventh industrywide increase this year on top of 12 increases last year, according to Cheapseats.com, an online travel agency.
Diminished flight capacity hasn't made leisure traveling harder, just more uncomfortable. What's different is flights are fuller and fares are higher, said Suzanne Kennard, who runs the luxury travel division of Salt Lake City-based Morris Murdock Travel.
"We have not experienced difficulty in getting people to where they need to be. The only difference, I'd say, is that it's not cheap. Bargains are not readily available, unless you are willing to be flexible and wait until the last minute. But if you're planning a vacation, you don't want to wait until the last minute," Kennard said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation said domestic fares rose a record 10.3 percent in the first quarter of 2006 from a year ago. In Salt Lake, fares surged 14.9 percent, putting the city at No. 10 among the 85 biggest airline markets.
Falling flight numbers are affecting business travelers who fly on short notice, said April Kotter, director of sales for Morris Murdock's business travel division.
"I wouldn't say they are complaining. But they are noticing that they need to do 'advance-purchase' more often. It's not as likely they will have the flight availability that they would like. They are finding that the loads on current flights are full and most of the time, oversold. So they run the risk of not being able to get on the plane at all," Kotter said.
Even though the number of flights into Salt Lake is down, airline service is better, largely because of Delta's efforts to restructure and lift itself from bankruptcy, in the opinion of airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann. Since last year, the Atlanta-based company has added service to 29 new nonstop markets from its Salt Lake hub.
Along with regional partners SkyWest and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Delta flew 16.7 million passengers in Salt Lake in 2005, compared with 12.9 million in the previous year.
Gann said the number of flights has decreased because the airlines are changing how they use the airport. Carriers are using more regional jets and fewer full-sized aircraft. They are adding new destinations and increasing the number of times they fly to other destinations at the same time they are reducing flights to other markets.
"We are doing smarter flying, which is when passengers want to travel," Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
One big result is healthier airlines. On Tuesday, United reported its first quarterly profit in six years. Delta is creeping toward profitability. If it weren't paying millions of dollars to restructure, the airline would have earned money in April and May. Experts say the entire industry may report of profit this year - or come close.
"I think people here are used to receiving a very healthy level of air service, and that's what they are receiving," Gann said.
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