Huntsville airport prospering but not cheap, says expert - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Huntsville airport prospering but not cheap, says expert

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

Plane trips out of Huntsville have turned into an inconvenient ordeal for Susan Kersch of Madison. 

"I want to know why I end up driving to Nashville or Birmingham because I can get a cheaper fare," she demanded.  And she took the shorter route than Sherry Doss of Hartselle  "Flying out of Huntsville was going to cost me $800 for two people," she exclaimed.  "I flew out of Atlanta for 525.    I'd like for the prices to come down so I can actually fly out of here.  It's ridiculous to have to drive so far but that was a huge difference in price."

The complaints were a familiar one for Bill Swelbar with the M.I.T. International Center for Air Transportation, who spoke at UAH Tuesday night. 

"Ongoing sore spot," he said "not just in Huntsville, at many, many communities around the country.  The thing is that everyone wants to believe that they're the exception and not the rule. I speak to a number of small communities out there.  Similar, similar issue."

Swelbar said, airfare pain notwithstanding, Huntsville International Airport is actually a healthier, better positioned, air travel environment than many similarly sized airports across the country as the airline industry goes through brutal consolidation and what he calls the airlines' new "religion" of "capacity discipline," drastic reductions in overall capacity.  

According to MIT's research, between 2007 and 2012, Huntsville airport's departures have gone down 17 percent. The number of seats out of Huntsville has gone down 1.7 percent and the airport's connectivity to the worldwide commercial air travel grid has declined 4.8 percent.

But those declines are much milder than other airports have seen and some Huntsville-sized airports have ended up cut off from worldwide air travel altogether, leaving travelers no alternative but to get on a highway to a larger city.

That, Swelbar credited to Huntsville's thriving business community which, he said, also explains the higher fares as business travelers are much less sensitive to ticket prices than vacationers.

Rising prices, he said, are "the new normal."

Short of a new casino complex in Decatur or major Disney resort at Ditto Landing, Swelbar said he sees little that could change that reality for travelers wishing for lower airfares.

"I would love to say to you that I see a real leverage point for Huntsville," he said, "or for other communities out there to negotiate fares lower, and I don't see that in the face of oil prices that are the equivalent of $130 in the wing." 

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