It’s a frequent complaint of airline travelers in Fresno: Airlines seem to charge more to fly from Fresno Yosemite International Airport than from places like Los Angeles or San Francisco.
And figures released this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that it’s more than just a perception. In the second quarter of 2016, the average airline ticket price for a domestic itinerary from Fresno was estimated at $439. That’s higher than the average cost at any of California’s other major airports, and about $86 more than the nationwide average among all airports large and small.
“It is what it is,” said Michael Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International. “But it’s not like Fresno is getting ripped off.”
Boyd discounted the importance of the quarterly airfare statistics as “meaningless” because they represent the total ticket amount spent by a passenger on a trip itinerary, whether it’s for a short business flight to San Francisco or Los Angeles, a couple of days in Las Vegas or connecting to the East Coast through a major hub airport. And, he added, there are so many factors that vary from airport to airport, including the number of airlines competing in a market, that can skew the interpretation of the “average” airfare figures. “The Department of Transportation statistics are comparing things that don’t compare.”
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It’s not like Fresno is getting ripped off. … That’s just the nature of the business.
Michael Boyd, aviation industry consultant
“When you’re a smaller market, the ticket ‘spend’ is going to be higher than from the bigger airports,” Boyd said. “There are more low-fare carriers at those (larger) airports. In Fresno, you’ve got Allegiant (as a low-fare carrier), and that’s it.”
“And Southwest (Airlines) isn’t coming,” Boyd said of one of the nation’s leading low-cost carriers. “You’re not big enough for Southwest.”
For Fresno, which ranks as the 99th-largest airport in the U.S. based on domestic passenger activity, ticket prices represent airlines charging what the market will bear, Boyd added. Through the first seven months of 2016, more than 375,000 passengers have flown on airlines’ flights from Fresno, and those flights have been taking off with an average of about 80 percent of seats filled. In fact, July represented the busiest month at Fresno Yosemite International Airport since at least 2002, with more than 62,500 passengers departing on domestic flights.
When that many seats are full, there’s not a huge incentive for airlines to reduce prices.
“Airfares out of our airport are really what the market demands,” said Kevin Meikle, aviation director for the city of Fresno. “We’re in competition with other airports for aircraft and crew, so airlines are going to put their expensive investments in the places where they can maximize their profit and where the airfares they are able to command work for them.”
Meikle added that airlines constantly monitor their flights’ performance in their markets. “If airplanes are not as full as they want, they can adjust the fares downward,” he said.
The airfare picture isn’t all cloudy for Fresno, however. The average ticket price from Fresno in the second quarter of 2016 was about $22 lower than a year earlier. And 21 years ago, in the second quarter of 1995, the average price was estimated at $401 – money that would be worth about $633 when adjusted for two decades of inflation, compared to the current average of $439.
Because Fresno is a mid-sized airport relative to larger airports that are served with more airlines and more flights to more destinations, Valley residents who are ultimately traveling to destinations on the East Coast tend to weigh the higher price of flying from Fresno against the inconvenience of a three- or four-hour drive to San Francisco or Los Angeles to catch cheaper flights at those airports.
Even if you take the averages at face value, when you look at $439 in Fresno and $403 in San Francisco, you’re not going to drive to San Francisco for that $36 difference.
Kevin Meikle, director of aviation for the city of Fresno
“Even if you take the averages at face value, when you look at $439 in Fresno and $403 in San Francisco, you’re not going to drive to San Francisco for that $36 difference,” Meikle said.
Meikle described airfares and the level of airline service at an airport as “a delicate balance.” “We have a good balance here because of the diversity of our air service,” he said. “We have every major airline here except Southwest, and eight of our 11 destinations are to major airline hubs. That competition is what helps control airfares.”
And compared to other small-hub airports, Meikle said Fresno is “in pretty good shape” because of the volume of service it has from airlines. “We have seven airlines, and most small hubs have only two or three, and they don’t go to nearly the number of large hubs,” he said.
Boyd added that while Fresnans may bemoan the higher price of flying from Fresno, the community is fortunate that business travelers from other parts of the nation and world can fly into Fresno from the regional hubs of the nation’s biggest airlines – United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines – as well as Alaska Airlines’ flights from West Coast cities and Allegiant Air’s service to and from Las Vegas.
“Fresno has excellent access to and from the rest of the world. That’s what really counts,” Boyd said. “Can a business traveler get to Fresno and to your region? Yes. Can you get lower fares? No. That’s just the nature of the business.”
A glance at average prices for domestic round-trip or one-way airfares at major California airports. Estimates are for passengers’ complete itineraries, including connecting flights booked at the time of initial ticket purchase:
Fresno Yosemite International
San Francisco International
John Wayne (Santa Ana)
San Diego International
Los Angeles International
U.S. NATIONAL AVERAGE
Mineta San Jose International
Hollywood Burbank (Bob Hope)
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2nd Quarter 2016 Air Fare Data for the top 100 U.S. airports ranked by number of domestic passengers