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.
Travelers in cities that have lost service now must drive or take buses to larger airports. That adds time and stress to travel. St. Cloud lost air service at the end of 2009 after Delta eliminated flights on 34-seat turboprops. Now, passengers from the city of 66,000 have a 90-minute drive to the Minneapolis airport 65 miles to the southeast.
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.
Another city without service is Oxnard, 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, which lost three daily turboprop flights operated on behalf of United. The airport's website advises travelers to catch a bus to Los Angeles International Airport.
Atilla Taluy, a tax preparer who lives in Oxnard, ends up driving or taking the shuttle to Los Angeles. "In morning traffic, it becomes quite a burdensome trip," he says.
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.
"I don't know if they really care about (passengers) in the small markets," says Rick Steece, a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control who travels overseas from Pierre two to three times a year.
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 in the world. The flights attracted business travelers who tended to pay more for tickets.
Airlines loved the planes. Bombardier and Embraer sold more than 1,900 50-seat jets during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"We all got carried away with it," says Glen W. Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president for network planning, revenue management and marketing.
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.
For airlines, it all comes down to spreading fuel costs among passengers. A Delta 50-seat CRJ-200 made by Bombardier takes 19 gallons of fuel to fly each passenger 500 miles. Fuel usage drops to just 7.5 gallons per passenger on Delta's 160-seat MD-90s over the same distance.
So while the bigger jet burns more fuel overall, it's more efficient.
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.
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