Some airports much cheaper than others
No one knows this better than the 176,000 or so folks who call Huntsville, Ala. home. The city's international airport reported the highest average domestic airfare in the country --a whopping $491.82 for the fourth quarter of 2009, according to a list of the 100 most expensive U.S. airports recently released by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
In second place, with an average domestic airfare of $423.76, was Savannah, Ga.'s international airport, followed by Grand Rapids, Mich. in third at $412.40, Knoxville, Tenn. in fourth at $410.25, and Newark, N.J. rounding out the top five at $405.19.
The nation's most expensive airports count several things in common that keep airfares in their cities artificially high, including fewer airlines competing with one another for passengers, a sparse number of destinations to choose from, as well as a lack of alternative airports nearby.
When Southwest Airlines enters the picture, however, all bets are off. With consistently low prices, the carrier incites fare wars among rivals the minute it arrives at a new facility -- a phenomenon so common it's known as the "Southwest effect."
Fare wars resulting from the Southwest effect caused prices to plunge over the last decade at several airports on the Bureau of Transportation's list including facilities in Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. At Denver International Airport alone ticket prices fell by 30% from $418.53 in the fourth quarter of 2000 to $291.53 at the end of 2009.
The cheapest airports on the list are also beneficiaries of amped-up competition brought on by low-fare carriers. The airport with the lowest average domestic fare in the fourth quarter of last year is Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey, where ticket prices are two-and-a-half-times cheaper than they are in Huntsville. Passengers here paid $190.43, on average.
Number 99 on the list of 100 most expensive airports was a tiny facility in Long Beach, Calif., which posted an average domestic fare of $230.16. The third cheapest was Dallas' Love Field -- not coincidentally Southwest's home base -- with fares at $235.19, followed by Orlando's international airport in fourth at $239.28 and Fort Lauderdale's Hollywood International Airport at $239.62.
Travel experts say the wide variation in ticket prices from airport to airport underscores the importance of passengers focusing as much attention on which airports they are flying into and out of, as which airline they will fly on.
"In some cases, it may make financial sense to fly to a major airport that's further from your destination and drive, than to fly into the closest airport," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, Travelocity's senior editor.
Many travel web sites, including Travelocity, allow travelers to check an alternate airport search option when they're researching fares that will automatically pull up flights to a destination served by multiple airports.
"If you search for an air fare to Miami, but check the alternate search box, you'll also get fares to West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale," said Shaw Brown. "It's easy to see which airport will have the cheapest flights from your origination city."