D/FW Fares Fell at End of 2004

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport saw ticket prices drop last year, particularly on routes to distant cities, according to a new government report -- but it still remains one of the most expensive airports in the nation for travelers.

Average fares at D/FW dropped 7 percent during the fourth quarter of 2004, according to data released this week by the U.S. Transportation Department. Nationwide, fares fell by about 6 percent, the government said.

The biggest decrease at D/FW came on long-haul routes, which the government defines as trips longer than 750 miles. Those fares fell by an average of 16 percent, well ahead of the 5 percent nationwide drop.

Prices on shorter trips fell only slightly, about 2 percent, according to the government data.

Fares at D/FW were still 23 percent higher overall than the national average during the quarter. That's down from a 34 percent premium two years ago.

Fares have been falling nationwide for several years because of the fast growth of discount airlines, such as Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue. But D/FW fares have remained well above average, in part because of American Airlines' huge hub at the airport.

"The hub airports always have higher fares," said Mike Boyd, an analyst who runs the Boyd Group of Evergreen, Colo. "The tradeoff is that you have nonstop flights to many, many destinations."

Locally, fares have been an issue in recent months as officials debate the future of the Wright Amendment, which restricts service at nearby Dallas Love Field to states that border Texas, and Mississippi, Alabama and Kansas.

Dallas-based Southwest, which operates only at Love Field and refuses to fly at D/FW, says fares will drop rapidly if the amendment is lifted. D/FW officials, meanwhile, contend that lifting the Love Field restrictions would damage the larger airport, and that fares are likely to drop over the next few years anyway.

Joe Lopano, D/FW's executive vice president of marketing, said the new government data demonstrate that fares can fall even with the Wright Amendment in place.

"We can get lower fares without putting the airport at risk," he said.

Lopano credited the fourth-quarter drop in long-haul fares to growth by low-fare airlines, particularly AirTran. That carrier added discount service last year to cities including Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

"This is what happens when you get low-fare competition," he said. He noted that not only do discount airlines charge low prices, larger airlines match the prices, often on numerous flights.

The lower fares also spurred higher traffic in many markets, Lopano said.

According to the airport, the trend strengthened during the first three months of 2005 as well.

Lopano said he received data from the government Thursday that showed an 11 percent drop in total fares, on average, during the first quarter of 2005, compared with the previous year.

That reflects a widespread cut in business fares, as much as 50 percent, that American implemented in January.

Total passengers traveling at the airport rose 7 percent during the quarter, Lopano said, even though Delta Air Lines closed its hub in January. "We're continuing to see this effect at D/FW," Lopano said. "It shows that we can have low-fare service here that has an impact."

The price of a round-trip ticket from D/FW to Long Beach, Calif., for example, dropped from $408 to $264, on average -- a 35 percent savings.

The government report is based on a sample of fares provided by airlines for the 1,000 most-popular domestic routes in the United States, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.

The nation's most expensive airport for consumers in the fourth quarter of 2004 was Charlotte, N.C., where US Airways operates a hub with little competition. Fares there were 37 percent higher than the national average.

Other cities with airports costlier than D/FW were Richmond, Va., Minneapolis/St. Paul and Houston, at Bush Intercontinental.

Dallas Love Field was among the nation's cheapest airports for passengers. Discount carrier Southwest Airlines operates about 97 percent of the commercial flights there.

Love Field's fares were priced about 16 percent below the national average, and the airport ranked No. 92 out of the 109 listed.

The cheapest airport in the nation was St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, where fares were 35 percent below the national average.