Lack of fliers tied to higher Metro Airport airfares
Romulus — Even with falling fuel prices and competition on some routes from low-cost carriers, travelers flying out of Detroit Metropolitan Airport should not expect significantly lower fares anytime soon.
Experts say that despite the airport's size, and routes that include direct flights to destinations as far away as China, its consistently stalled passenger traffic numbers result in less competition, which would lead to lower fares.
The metropolitan area of Detroit is a "shrinking market" with not as many passengers flying, said George Hobica, president and founder of Airefarewatchdog.com, which monitors airfares for travelers. "Therefore, it's less lucrative for the airlines to have a lot of competition, a lot of planes, a lot of flights, coming in and out."
Hobica said Metro Airport is "geographically isolated," without "cheap alternative airports" that help drive prices down. Flint's Bishop International Airport is about 70 miles from Metro.
Metro officials have made gains in attracting the so-called "ultra low-cost" carriers such as Spirit, JetBlue and Frontier, providing competition to markets including Denver, Boston and cities in Florida. But other destinations, such as San Francisco, are not served by multiple carriers and have steep price tags.
According to the International Air Transportation Association, five airlines fly to Denver from Detroit with an average one-way fare of $132. Only Delta Air Lines offers direct flights to San Francisco and cost on average $278 one-way.
Del Jennings, 73, of Brighton said she flies south from Metro Airport to spend time with her grandchildren. But she feels sticker shock with the airfare to Raleigh, where she was traveling last month.
"It's very expensive," Jennings said. "We're blessed and we can afford it, and I feel happy about that. When you see how many people are in the airport and you look at them and think, how can they afford it?"
Although airport officials believe that this year's numbers will be slightly higher, the passenger traffic at Metro Airport has stalled at roughly 32 million annually for the past four years. In terms of "movements," which measure landings and takeoffs, in 2014 Metro Airport ranked 17th with 392,635, behind Newark, Miami and Minneapolis but ahead of Boston, according to the Airports Council International-North America.
"When you are flying from New York, you have five different airports that you can fly from. Chicago has two. Washington has three," Hobica said. "With Detroit, if it were a growing city ... there will be more incentive for airlines to add flights and for other airlines to come in."
Across the country, airline prices appear to be falling. And the fare drop comes as the U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations of price collusion by the nation's biggest carriers including Delta, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.
According to Hopper, a Boston-based company that studies airline pricing to help consumers find the best flight information and trends, Metro Airport ranks 25th among the largest airports in terms of pricing. The latest information shows that in July, travelers paid $281 for the average ticket at Metro compared with Fort Lauderdale, the cheapest, at $202.
That makes Metro Airport ticket prices more like those of a midsized airport, said Patrick Surry, head of data science for Hopper.
"It looks like the lack of competition means that you are not getting the good deals that you see at a similarly sized airport," Surry said. "You would sort of expect the prices to be better, given that it's an international airport. If you live in a state that's served by an airport that only has one major carrier, you're likely to spend a lot more on your flight than someone at a more competitive hub."
Joe Cambron is Metro Airport's director of air service development, whose job it is to lure low-cost carriers and new flights on various routes to drive prices down for consumers. He said there has been some recent success in attracting new airlines to less-serviced routes.
In 2014, Alaska Airlines with flights to Seattle and Jet Blue with flights to Boston began flying out of Metro. Cambron said the airport hadn't attracted two airlines in one year since 2006. In addition more routes were added last year, including a Frontier Airlines flight to Wilmington, Delaware, and Spirit Airlines' flights to Minneapolis, Kansas City, Atlanta and New Orleans.
The impact has been felt. For example, when JetBlue entered the Boston market in 2014, passenger traffic spiked 65.2 percent from 254,586 passengers to 420,530, and fares slipped 35 percent from $245 one-way to $159.
This year, Virgin Atlantic started flights from Metro to London's Heathrow Airport. Other new flights from Metro include JetBlue to Ft. Lauderdale and Spirit to Boston. Southwest will begin flying to Dallas Love Field this fall. Officials also expect Southwest to begin weekend flights from Metro to Orlando.
"We're not at the downside of that curve. But we are not at the top. And we look up there and we wish we were at the top," Cambron said. "It's hard to compete with Chicago, New York and L.A.
"Certainly, we are not embarrassed at all in what we have achieved. We're pretty happy with that."
With the larger carriers such as Delta, Cambron is frank: "In terms of getting fares to go down, they are going to charge what people are willing to pay."
Cambron said it's prudent for Metro Detroit passengers to try "all our airlines," but knows there is a segment of the population that won't fly a low-cost carrier. But low fares come, he said, with competition.
"If you are saying, 'I'm only going to fly on this one airline,' frankly, you are probably part of the problem because if you're going to do that, you're not going to have competition and you're not going to have low fares. You need to say 'I'm going to try everybody.'"
Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta based in Atlanta, said that a lot can "play into" why fares are high or low.
"There may be more flights on a specific day of the week or more flights on a specific time," Black said. "Fares are ultimately a product of supply and demand."
Black said he couldn't speculate on fare pricing because the Justice Department prohibits airlines from discussing fares.
But Kelli Abbott, 49, of Clarkston said it's a well-known fact that flying out of Metro Airport is costly, depending on the flight. She has friends who have flown from smaller neighboring airports to get better deals.
"There aren't as many options out of Detroit," said Abbott, who was returning recently from a business flight into Metro Airport. "If you're trying to get somewhere for business, you don't really have a lot of choices."
Abbott said that she is flying to Aruba this month for just under $1,000 on Delta, which she considers expensive.
"People are insensitive to it, just like the cost of gas," she said. "If you want to go and you want to fly, you either have to postpone your trip to make sure you have enough funding to support it or you go to another airport. It's just what it is."