The most overpriced airfare in America?

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At this point it’s not a surprise to anyone who travels frequently in the United States that airfares have much less to do with distance than they do with competition on a given route.

This means, in most cases, that travelers between two cities with small airports and limited flights wind up saying ridiculously high airfares. But, that’s not always the case.

Some of these ridiculously high airfares are between major airports. For example, a regular business client called this week to make a day trip between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, with three weeks advance purchase.

The distance between the cities is 183 air miles, about 245 highway miles and a four hour drive. The least expensive fare without a three-day or weekend stay, $993.00 round-trip, with a $150 change fee.

By comparison, another consistently expensive city pair, Detroit to Cincinnati, which is 229 air miles, is $854 round-trip for the same one-day round-trip. Then take a look at Chicago-Ohare to Cincinnati, 264 miles, that prices at $915 round-trip. (Cincinnati, as a Delta hub with little competition, consistently has high airfares.)

So what do these particular ridiculous fares have in common, other than no competition? They are just far enough apart to discourage business travelers from driving. For leisure travelers, fares between these cities aren’t great for longer stays, but they are considerably better.

In addition, these fares are all in markets not served by discount carriers like Southwest, or Jetblue. (For example, fares from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia dropped dramatically when Southwest entered the market, as did fares to many cities from Atlanta when Airtran arrived.)

As United completes their merger with Continental, more other city pairs no doubt will join the high-price competition. The same day round-trip fare between their Chicago-O’Hare and Houston-Intercontinental hubs, which are 925 miles apart is $948. (Although Southwest competes with fares that are less than half that price between Chicago-Midway and Houston-Hobby.)

There are several other major city-pairs in the overpriced “Hall of Shame.” The other inspiration for this post was a client who needed a nonstop between Dallas and Boston, a 1,562-mile trip, and the one-way fare was $1,023 for a ticket purchased a month in advance. (By comparison, the fare from San Francisco to Dallas, almost the same distance, is less than half the price.)

No doubt the airlines involved here will just say they are trying to make a profit in tough times. Fair enough. On the other hand, for anyone unlikely enough to need to travel between these and other cities, it can be more than frustrating.

If any readers have another city pair or two to nominate for the “most overpriced airfare in America,” please note them in comments.

First, venting is good catharsis. Second, discount carriers are always looking for new markets. And if a route looks like the airline equivalent of really low hanging fruit (i.e very easy to undercut prices,) then who knows, help may be on the way.

  • John

    Janice you can add CVG (Cincinnati) and anywhere in the world. CVG has been in the top 5 for fares as long as I can remember. It wasn’t bad when CVG was a true hub with 600+ flights a day but after they completely pulled out the Comair operator (CVG was their hub) and and CVG become a hub in name only (dropped total flights around 150 with 1 international and no crew bases), it gets old paying a lot more.

  • Anonymous

    Your client perhaps has particular requirements for her/his r/t from DCA to PIT.  If it is nonstop service, then yes, the fares are above $900.  However, if the client will take a one-stop in both directions, with 4 hours and 45 minutes ground time in PIT, then this can be had for $309.  Or 8+ hours ground time is $666 with one one-stop flight. 

    Pricing always has been awkward and illogical.  But usually there is a workaround for a price.  In this case, the traveler must connect through BOS, twice on the lowest fare and once on the $666. 

  • Anonymous

    SoBe – so less than 5 ours on the ground – need two hours at airport before return flight.  Short of the client doing his business in the airport itself, this would work how?

  • Mapsmith

    Wow.  10 seconds on Kayak and I found $161 RT from BWI with almost 8 hours on the ground.  

  • Tony A.

    Usually the legacy carriers won’t lower the SAT/SUN minimum stay restriction on a round trip fare, so you end up combining (multiplying by 2) a one-way fare. This is what happened to your DCA-PIT quick trip on USAir. The one-way fare was $486 before tax. So double that plus tax is $993.40.

    However, JetBlue does not have that minimum stay requirement; but there is no nonstop route between DCA and PIT, so your pax needs to conx in BOS.
    Flight is about 4 hours. The lowest ticket can be – $268.80 R/T with just one night stay.

    FBC ADT OH14AE2U
    ADT WAS B6 X/BOS B6 PIT 105.12B6 X/BOS B6 WAS 105.12USD210.24
       END B6 ZPDCABOSPITBOS XT10.00AY18.00XF DCA4.5BOS4.5PIT4.5
       BOS4.5

    If there is a will, there is a way.

  • Tony A.

    Oops, I did not mean to reply to John. I want to reply to Janice. Sorry.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    America is a beautiful country…better seen from the ground than from the sky…..if business people were more relaxed and didn’t hussle so hard, so much of the time, they could drive and and enjoy the scenery while letting the airlines beg for customers…..but i write fiction for fun and most of my life is devoted to fantasy…….

  • http://twitter.com/drewtipton Drew Tipton

    I tend to see HUGE airfares on MRY-LAX (Monterey, CA to LA)…  it’s about 325 miles, but airfare tends to be $1200-1300 for a ‘day trip’… 

  • http://profiles.google.com/saucywench S E Tammela

    Here’s a dumb question, so forgive me. What happens if you book your day-trip customer TWO return tickets to get around the minimum stay rule… one originating at Washington, D.C. that returns a week later, and another one originating in Pittsburgh and returning a week later? Then, he’ll just be a no-show for the two return legs he has no use for. I suspect it’s cheaper to waste two return legs than to pay for one $993 return ticket.

  • Anonymous

    The airlines call that “back to back” ticketing and most of them prohibit that practice.  If you book it on their website and they catch you and they probably will now, they will cancel your reservations and refuse to refund your money.  If you book through someone like Orbitz, the airlines will bill Orbitz for the difference between the price of your ticket and two full fare round trip tickets.  If you can find a travel agent to do this for you, then your travel agent will be billed for the fare difference.

    The only way I know around this without getting caught is to do one round trip on one carrier, say Delta and the other round trip on another carrier that doesn’t share mileage programs with Delta, say American.  

  • Janice

    Tony, no I understood that option, but this was a client flying in for a one day meeting…. and the connection took about as long as driving.

  • Janice

    Hi, yes, we noticed that one too.  But that’s an hour drive from Dulles, and later arrival than he needed anyway. If time is not an issue then there’s usually a work around to most cities with connections or alternate airports. Again this is only a four hour drive each way.. My point is that even allowing for higher fares for nonstops, some cities seem WAY out of line.

  • Janice

    One other issue, if you use two separate carriers for this back to back that use the same mileage program, like United, Continental and U.S Air, or JetBlue and American, they can also catch you by the mileage number, unless you leave it out for one reservation.

  • Chuck

    Why always airlines? What about the bus? Megabus shows a trip of about 5-1/5 hours for $27 – $33 each way. If we started to use some alternate transportation the airline may soon realize they don’t have a monopoly.

  • Chris in NC

    Janice, 

    No doubt, the airlines have your client by the you know what. The problem is the flawed “yield-based” management pricing structure. There is no rhyme or reason for pricing, except where there is competition by Southwest, prices seem more reasonable. I wish more media would focus on the illogical pricing structure of airline ticket prices. Why does a fight from point A to B cost $341 each way, but from point A to B to C cost $69 each way? Why should it be illegal to use back-to-back ticketing, or to discard a portion of a flight. 

  • Anonymous

    Same day travel usually means no checked bags.  Two hours at the airport before departure?  Foolish.  One hour at the most, boarding passes already issued upon outboard flight in a.m.  Get to airport, walk through security, get to gate.  Sixty minutes maybe.  Elite flyer with special security line does this in less than that.

    Many business meetings last just two hours and you grit your teeth by having to pay $900 airfare for a two-hour meeting.  So take your iPad and iPhone, do some work along the way. 

  • Tgulledge

    You should check IAD to HSV or DCA to HSV non-stop and direct. I think that sets the record.