Airline Travelers, Your Future Will Look a Lot Like … Cleveland

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A United Airlines jet at Newark Liberty International Airport on January 31, 2014 in Newark, N.J.

United Airlines announced it is dropping 60% of departures in Cleveland, which was once a major hub for Continental—back before Continental merged with United.

Airline mergers are formed in order to boost efficiency and profits. For fliers, however, the many mergers created in recent years have often hurt once-important travel hubs such as St. Louis, Memphis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. And it’s not merely locals served by these gateways who are affected. Across the board, the new world of airline travel is one of fewer flights, less convenience, higher fares, and, of course, a business model increasingly clogged with fees.

When United and Continental merged in 2010, there was plenty of speculation that Cleveland’s status as a key flight hub was in jeopardy. “Does Cleveland remain a hub?” the owner of one Cleveland-based research firm wondered at the time, via a Bloomberg News story. “Does it move a notch down? Does it get eliminated all together? Anybody I know who travels is concerned.”

All of those questions have now been answered by United, which announced over the weekend that by this summer it will cut its number of daily Cleveland departures from 199 to 72. “We have no choice, given the level of continued losses we have suffered in Cleveland,” United CEO Jeff Smisek wrote in a letter, according to the Associated Press. Some 400 to 500 jobs in Ohio will be eliminated as well.

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While the news is heartbreaking for many in and around Cleveland, the changing face of the today’s airline business has people worried across the country. Cities such as Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Phoenix, which are important gateways for US Airways, have been up in the air, so to speak, since rumors surfaced that the carrier would be merging with American Airlines—a merger that was approved of last fall. “There are definitely routes where competition will be severely limited,” after an American-US Air merger, Diana Moss, director of the American Antitrust Institute, said in a Senate hearing, per the Charlotte Observer. Naturally, less competition leads to higher prices, less innovation, and less service period.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed to Pittsburgh as an example of what travelers can expect in the near future in Cleveland—and perhaps in gateways such as Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Phoenix as well. US Airways got rid of Pittsburgh International Airport as a hub in 2004, and ever since travelers—business travelers in particular—have been frustrated with the drastically reduced number of flights (non-stop flights especially), combined with a steady rise in the price of airfare. “At first, we thought it wouldn’t be that bad, but when you go to book our flights, you found out how difficult it is,” one Pittsburgh-area university employee who travels for work complained.

In another Plain Dealer story, airline analyst Michael Boyd said that the fate of Cleveland and other once-mighty hubs is more the result of today’s market forces—including soaring jet fuel prices and the realization that it’s near impossible for airlines to make money flying small planes—than it is strictly the fault of airline mergers. “The merger didn’t take away the connecting hub, the economics of the airline industry did,” he explained.

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In any event, the scene unfolding now and in the coming months in Cleveland is one that, unfortunately, is likely to be one that’ll be experienced in other U.S. gateways as well, making life more difficult and more expensive for travelers around the country.