Tallahassee flight requires large capital outlay

Major carriers snub Tallahassee for bright lights and big cities, resulting in fares exceeding those to New York and Chicago.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published March 5, 2008

Hurry and you might catch the air fare bargain of the year.

Tampa to Tallahassee and back for a mere $270. Yesterday, the deal was good only for Wednesday and Thursday of next week. After that, the cheapest seat shoots up to $401. Any earlier and you'd pay something north of $600.

"You could take a trip to Europe and back for that," says state Sen. Michael Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who makes the flight each week while the Legislature is in session. "New York is much cheaper. You can fly for half that amount to Washington, D.C."

He's not alone wondering why flying in and out of the state capital is so darn expensive.

A Tallahassee Democrat reader recently wrote that he booked two round-trip tickets to Phoenix from Valdosta, Ga., for $323, one plus a bargain companion fare, that cost $730.25 from Tallahassee. Walk-up fares to Miami and back can run more than $1,000, says Linda South, secretary of the state Department of Management Services.

Tallahassee is a textbook lesson in airline economics. Rule No.1: It's all about competition. Delta Air Lines and its regional partners dominate the market. The only head-to-head competition comes from affiliates of other major airlines.

On the Tampa-Tallahassee route, the choice is between Delta Connection 50-seat jets and Continental Connection 19-seat turboprops. Continental sometimes undercuts Delta's hefty fares by a few bucks.

But there's no discount airline - Southwest or JetBlue or AirTran - trying to steal away customers with cheaper seats. These low-cost carriers typically prefer bigger cities with more leisure travelers.

Tallahassee lured AirTran in 2001 with $3.6-million in subsidies and advertising money over three years. The airport's average fare dropped 25 percent in the first year.

But AirTran wasn't making money because business travelers flew Delta to keep getting frequent flier miles on the big, global airline, says spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver. "We heard people say, 'We're so glad AirTran is here to keep fares down on Delta,'" she said. AirTran left in 2004.

Travelers gripe about the cost of flying to Tallahassee. Yet many - lawyers and lobbyists, legislators and state employees - aren't paying out of their own pockets.

The whole airline pricing structure is based on the idea that more leisure travelers will fly if fares drop, but business travelers are not as "price elastic." When their employers want business fliers to go somewhere, the ticket price won't stop them.

"If you're in a hurry to get there, it's assumed your price elasticity reflects that," says Daniel Petree, dean of the business school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Airport officials cheered the arrival of a new player this week to go up against Delta. American Eagle started flying the Tallahassee-Miami route, selling round-trips at an introductory fare of $219. Mayor John Marks was skeptical the price would last.

"My suspicion is that may go up," he said. "Maybe not to $600 or $700."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.


Average one-way fares from Tampa International Airport

New York-JFK

$114 1,007 miles 11.3 cents/mile

The airport is a hub for discount carrier JetBlue Airways.


$133 418 miles 31.8 cents/mile

Delta Air Lines dominates at its largest hub and hometown.


$132 203 miles 65 cents/mile

Delta and Continental commuter planes share high-fare traffic.


$106* 1,014 miles 10.5/mile

Low-fare king Southwest has lots of flights to nearby Midway Airport.


$97 203 miles 47.8 cents/mile

American hub but Southwest flights at Fort Lauderdale moderate fares.