Advocates Call For Increased Competition on Key US Air Routes

Photo Credit: Chris F via Pexels

In a recent move to address skyrocketing airfares, eleven prominent organizations have united to call for increased competition in the US airline industry.

Their letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg highlights a critical issue in the U.S. air travel market.

Specifically, it points to the dominance of a few major carriers on key routes, which may be contributing to inflated ticket prices.

The timing of this appeal is significant. It comes as the Department of Transportation (DOT) opens applications for five new long-haul routes from Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA).

This opportunity, created by the recently passed FAA Reauthorization Act, could potentially reshape the competitive landscape of one of the nation’s busiest and most expensive air travel hubs.

Airline Ticket Prices Rises vs CPI Increase

At the heart of the issue is a startling statistic: while the overall consumer price index has risen by about 4% in the past year, airline ticket prices have soared by 25%.

This disproportionate increase raises questions about the factors driving airfare inflation and the role that limited competition might play.

Photo Credit: ACI North America
Photo Credit: ACI North America

US Airlines & Market Dominance

The letter points to American Airlines‘ outsized influence at DCA, where the carrier controls approximately 60% of all flights. The letter points to this as a prime example of the monopolistic tendencies in the industry.

This level of market concentration is not unique to Washington; similar situations exist in other major hubs like Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami. Such dominance by a single carrier can lead to reduced choices and higher prices for consumers.

Edward Russell, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Historical context adds another layer to this complex issue. Since the 1960s, most flights from DCA have been restricted to a 1,250-mile perimeter.

This was originally implemented to encourage growth at nearby Dulles International Airport.

Currently, only 20 roundtrip flights are exempt from this rule. American and Alaska Airlines controlling 55% of these coveted long-haul slots. Their marketing and codeshare agreement further consolidates this control.

David, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Slot Pair Strategy

The FAA Reauthorization Act’s provision for five new long-haul slot pairs at DCA presents a unique opportunity. It allows for the injection competition into this tightly controlled market.

The coalition of organizations is urging the DOT to allocate these new slots to carriers with a smaller current footprint at DCA. This allocation should include ultra-low-cost carriers.

This strategy, they argue, could increase competitive pressure and potentially lead to more affordable fares.

However, the issue extends beyond simply assigning new routes. The letter also emphasizes the importance of ensuring that airlines receiving these slots have access to necessary gates and facilities to operate effectively.

This highlights the often-overlooked infrastructural challenges that can impede true competition. This occurs even when new entrants are granted access to a market.

While the focus of this appeal is on DCA, it reflects broader concerns about competition in the airline industry nationwide.

Air travelers in a busy airport terminal.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Summary

The consolidation of major carriers over past decades has led to a market dominated by a handful of large airlines. This potentially limits the downward pressure on airfares and prices that robust competition typically provides.

The recent letter to the Transport Secretary was signed off by 11 concerned organizations:

  • American Economic Liberties Project
  • American Family Voices
  • Blue Future
  • Demand Progress Education Fund 
  • Next Gen Competition
  • Progressive Democrats of America 
  • P Street
  • People Power United
  • Rural Urban Bridge
  • Democratic Messaging Project
  • Local Majority
Us airlines at Washington DCA airport
Acroterion, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The coalition’s approach aligns with the Biden administration’s broader efforts to promote competition across various sectors of the economy.

By focusing on a specific, actionable opportunity like the DCA slot allocation, they provide a concrete starting point for potentially far-reaching changes in air travel markets.

As the DOT considers these applications, the decision they make could serve as a bellwether for future efforts to increase airline competition.

If successful, this initiative at DCA could provide a model for similar actions at other concentrated hubs across the country.

Ultimately, the goal is clear: to create a more competitive air travel market that benefits consumers through increased choice and more affordable airfares.

As air travel continues to rebound post-pandemic, the outcome of this effort could have significant implications for millions of American travelers.


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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 6 Min Read
6 Min Read
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