Albuquerque, Minneapolis flights to be cut in 2013 - Inside Tucson Business: Inside Business Travel

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Albuquerque, Minneapolis flights to be cut in 2013

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Posted: Friday, December 28, 2012 6:00 am | Updated: 3:10 pm, Fri Dec 28, 2012.

2013 hasn’t started but already airlines have decided to erase two of the 15 non-stop destinations passengers can reach from Tucson International Airport — one for part of the year and the other permanently.

June 1 will be the last day Southwest Airlines flies between Tucson and Albuquerque. That’s also the last day Delta Air Lines will fly between Tucson and Minneapolis-St. Paul, though it plans to resume the flights on a seasonal basis again effective Oct. 1. This year, Delta had suspended the Tucson-Minneapolis flights for the month of September.

In addition to these two cuts, Southwest is trimming its summer schedule eliminating one of four daily round-trip flights to Los Angeles International Airport and one of five daily flights to Las Vegas.

Dick Gruentzel, director of finance and administration for the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA), said the reasons behind the cuts are different between the two airlines but said they are the kinds of decisions affecting lots of airports, not just Tucson.

In the case of Southwest, the airline is deep in the throes of completing its merger with AirTran, an airline that mainly operated in the Southeast U.S. As part of combining the two airlines, Southwest is getting rid of 88 Boeing 717s it acquired in the AirTran merger but is not replacing them with additional aircraft.

Southwest, which is noted for the efficiencies of flying only one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737, found that it was costing too much to fly the 717s.

As a result, Southwest is combining the route structures of two airlines essentially using the fleet it had before the merger took place. Something had to give. The first to go are unprofitable flights.

Gruentzel said it was difficult for Southwest to justify the Albuquerque flights, which was the airline’s poorest performing route from Tucson. For the 12 months ended July 2012, average load factor — the number of seats filled — was 61.2 percent.

“That is just unsatisfactory when airlines these days expect to fly planes that are at least 85, 86, or 87 percent full,” Gruentzel said.

When Southwest initially started flying from Tucson to Albuquerque in June 1999, it opened up the airline’s first east-bound connecting flights. Up until that time, all Southwest flights from Tucson went either to cities in California or Las Vegas.

Since then, Southwest has begun flying to Chicago Midway and Denver so, as a practical matter, elimination of the Albuquerque flights shouldn’t change connectivity to other destinations. And unlike previous years, Southwest is planning to maintain two flights a day to both Chicago and Denver through the summer.

Tucson isn’t alone in losing Southwest flights to Albuquerque. The airline has been eliminating other flights there as a result of the end of federal legislation that restricted flights to Southwest’s home airport, Dallas Love Field.

The Wright Amendment, passed in 1979 as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to encourage expansion of operations at the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, restricted most airline flights at Love Field to destinations within Texas or a state bordering Texas. Any airline that wanted to fly to a destination farther away was required to use a small plane with a capacity for no more than 56 passengers.

The amendment was repealed in 2006 with a planned phase-out that will eliminate it entirely in 2014.

As for Delta’s plans to discontinue flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Gruentzel said that while the airline had satisfactory load factors averaging at 86 percent of seats filled, the problem was “yield.” In order to fill those seats, tickets were priced so low the route wasn’t as profitable as other routes where it can make more money.

The elimination of the Delta flights over the summer will be more problematic than losing the Albuquerque flights. The Minneapolis-St. Paul flights provide the only one-stop connections to eight smaller airports in the upper Midwest: Bemidji, Brainerd, Chisholm-Hibbing and Duluth, Minn.; Grand Forks, N.D.; Lansing and Saginaw-Bay City, Mich.; and Wausau, Wis.

But to the Twin Cities themselves, TAA officials note that every airline at Tucson International Airport — Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways — offers one-stop connecting flights.

Contact David Hatfield at dhatfield@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4237. Inside Business Travel appears the fourth week of each month.

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