Airline Deregulation: Changes in Airfares and Service at Four South Carolina Communities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and
                    Transportation, U.S. Senate

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    AIRLINE DEREGULATION
10:00 a.m. EST
March 12, 1999
                    Changes in Airfares and
                    Service at Four South
                    Carolina Communities
                    Statement by John H. Anderson, Jr.
                    Director, Transportation Issues
                    Resources, Community, and
                    Economic Development Division

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Over two decades have passed since the Congress phased out the federal
government’s control over airfares and service, relying instead on
competitive market forces to decide the price, quantity, and quality of
domestic air service. Last week, we issued a report on the changes in
airfares and service quality since deregulation.1 Our testimony is based on
information that we developed for that report and specifically addresses
the changes in airfares and service quality at airports serving Charleston
and other communities in South Carolina. We also performed additional
audit work at your request and will discuss the differences in airfares
charged to business and leisure passengers traveling to and from
Charleston. In summary, we found the following:

• Most communities in the United States have benefited from a decrease
  in average airfares since 1990. Airfares for passengers traveling to and
  from the four South Carolina airports that we reviewed--Charleston,
  Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg, and Myrtle Beach--also declined
  from 1990 through 1998. Since 1994, however, the average airfares for
  Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville-Spartanburg have increased. The
  average airfares to and from these communities are higher than those
  for the nation as a whole or for comparably sized communities.
• Since deregulation, the overall quality of air service, as measured by
  various quantitative (i.e., number of scheduled departures) and
  qualitative (i.e., availability of jet service) factors has increased at Myrtle
  Beach and Greenville-Spartanburg. However, the overall quality of air
  service has decreased at Charleston and Columbia.
• Airfares charged to business passengers using Charleston’s airport are
  much higher than those charged to leisure passengers for flights of all
  lengths, and business fares consistently increased from the second
  quarter of 1992 through the second quarter of 1998.

  Airline Deregulation: Changes in Airfares, Service Quality, and Barriers to Entry (GAO/RCED-99-92,
Mar. 4, 1999).

Page 1                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Overall Changes in     Last week, we reported on trends in airfares and the quality of air service
                       since deregulation for airports serving comparably sized communities.2 To
Airfares and Service   determine how fares have changed, we analyzed data on airfares to and
                       from 171 airports provided by the airlines to the Department of
                       Transportation (DOT) from 1990 to 1998.3 Our findings were similar to
                       those we reported in 1996--fares adjusted for inflation have fallen since
                       deregulation.4 Average airfares decreased at 168 of the 171 airports we
                       examined, with airports serving larger communities tending to experience
                       greater decreases than smaller ones. Because significant changes could
                       occur over this span of nearly 9 years, we also examined airfare changes
                       from 1990 through 1993 and then from 1994 through the second quarter of
                       1998. For this latter period, we found that although average airfares
                       decreased for passengers flying to or from most airports, they increased for
                       passengers traveling to and from 39 airports. Passengers making short
                       trips to or from airports serving larger communities were most likely to
                       experience these increases. Although we were able to associate declines in
                       average airfares with the introduction of competing service from low-fare
                       carriers, we were unable to account for all of the factors that can
                       contribute to differences in airfares to and from airports.

                       We also reported that the overall quality of air service had generally
                       improved for most communities since 1978, although larger communities
                       were more likely to benefit from these improvements than smaller ones.
                       Assessing trends in the overall quality of air service is difficult because
                       many factors contribute to the quality of service. This assessment requires,
                       among other things, a subjective weighting of the relative importance of
                       each measure that is generally considered a dimension of quality. In
                       assessing the overall quality of air service received by communities in each

                        We analyzed data for 171 airports: 42 serving small communities, 42 serving medium-sized
                       communities, 42 serving medium-large communities, and 45 serving large communities. Small
                       communities were those in a metropolitan statistical area with a population of up to 300,000,
                       medium-sized communities were those in an area with a population of 300,001 to 600,000, medium-large
                       communities were those in an area with a population of 600,001 to 1.5 million, and large communities
                       were in an area with a population of more than 1.5 million.
                        Data from the second quarter of 1998 were the most current available at the time of our work.
                       Throughout the remainder of this report, references to 1998 airfares should be interpreted as those for
                       the latest four quarters of airfare data available, beginning with the third quarter of 1997 and ending
                       with the second quarter of 1998. We measured changes in airfares using data reported by the airlines on
                       revenue yields per fared passenger mile. Thus, we excluded from our calculations passengers flying on
                       free tickets. Throughout this testimony, we use the term airfare instead of yield. Additionally, all data in
                       the testimony have been deflated into dollars reflecting those for the last four quarters.
                        See the list of related products at the end of this statement.

                       Page 2                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-99-117
                          of the size categories included in our study, we used four commonly
                          accepted measures, including the number of (1) departures, (2) available
                          seats, (3) destinations served by nonstop and one-stop flights, and (4) jet
                          departures compared with the number of turboprop departures. Nonstop
                          service is generally considered preferable to flights requiring a stop, and jet
                          aircraft are favored over turboprop aircraft.

Charleston, Columbia,     Since 1990, for the 171 airports in our review, average airfares decreased 21
                          percent. However, the decrease in average airfares at the airports serving
and Greenville-           Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville-Spartanburg was more modest--less
Spartanburg Have          than 7 percent. Of the airports that serve South Carolina included as part
                          of our review, only Myrtle Beach experienced a marked decrease in its
Benefited Only Slightly   average airfares.5 Its average decrease of 29.8 percent was similar in
From Decreases in         magnitude to the average 21-percent decrease reported for the other
Airfares                  airports in our review.

                          Since 1994, average airfares decreased only for the airport serving Myrtle
                          Beach. Airports serving the other three communities--Charleston,
                          Columbia, and Greenville-Spartanburg--were among the 39 in our review
                          where average airfares increased between 1994 and the second quarter of
                          1998. Of the 39 communities, Charleston had the third highest increase--an
                          increase of 20.3 percent. Only Greensboro, North Carolina, with an average
                          increase of 32 percent, and Roanoke, Virginia, with an average increase of
                          24 percent, had airfares increase by a higher percentage during this period.
                          Figure 1 compares the change in average airfares for Charleston and other
                          comparably sized communities.6

                           In most cases, more than one airport serves each of these communities. For Columbia, we analyzed
                          data for Columbia Metropolitan Airport; for Myrtle Beach, we analyzed data for the Myrtle Beach
                          International Airport; and for Greenville-Spartanburg, we analyzed data for the Greenville-Spartanburg
                           We categorized Charleston as a medium-sized community.

                          Page 3                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Figure 1: Percent Change in Average Airfares for Charleston and Comparably Sized
Communities, by Length of Trip, 1994-98 (Percent change, 1990-98)



                 -8.6                                 -8.1







                                     Length of trip

                 Charleston    Comparably sized communities

Source: GAO’s analysis of data from Data Base Products, Inc.

Since 1994, for Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville-Spartanburg, the
average increase in airfares for short trips exceeded the average increase
for medium-length trips.7 For example, for Greenville-Spartanburg, the
average increase for short trips was 25.2 percent, but the average increase
for medium-length trips was 15.5 percent. Table 1 summarizes the percent
change in average airfares by community and length of trip for 1990
through 1998.8

For the purpose of our analysis, we defined short trips as being equal to or less than 750 miles,
medium-length trips as being between 751 and 2,000 miles, and long trips as being 2,001 miles or more.
 The overall percent differences represent weighted averages reflecting passenger distributions at each
airport. For the rest of this report, references to average airfares refer to the weighted average.

Page 4                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Table 1: Percent Change in Average Airfares per Passenger Mile by South Carolina Community and by Length of Trip, 1990-98

                                                                                             Percent change in average airfaresa
Community                          Length of trip                                              1990-98               1990-93              1994-98
Charleston                         Short                                                            -8.2                  -0.7                 30.5
                                   Medium                                                          -10.2                   3.7                 11.5
                                   Long                                                              4.4                   9.3                 -2.1
                                   Overall                                                          -6.5                   2.3                 20.3
Columbia                           Short                                                            -9.6                  4.2                  19.2
                                   Medium                                                            1.6                  1.8                   9.8
                                   Long                                                             14.6                 15.2                  -4.0
                                   Overall                                                          -3.6                  5.0                  13.8
Greenville-Spartanburg             Short                                                            -1.8                   8.5                 25.2
                                   Medium                                                           -0.6                   2.2                 15.5
                                   Long                                                              8.1                   9.1                 -2.3
                                   Overall                                                          -0.7                   6.7                 19.9
Myrtle Beach                       Short                                                           -34.6                  -8.1                -12.5
                                   Medium                                                          -21.7                  -5.2                 -6.6
                                   Long                                                             -2.4                   4.0                 -2.2
                                   Overall                                                         -29.8                  -6.3                -10.5
                                           The percent change from 1990-98 does not always reflect the combination of the changes from
                                          1990-93 and 1994-98 because of some airfare decreases between 1993 and 1994.
                                          Source: GAO’s analysis of data from Data Base Products, Inc.

                                          Throughout the 1990s, airfares to and from the four airports serving South
                                          Carolina communities have been higher than the average airfares both for
                                          the nation as a whole and for comparably sized communities.9 For
                                          example, in 1998, travelers flying to or from Greenville-Spartanburg paid an
                                          average of 26.5 cents per mile. That amount is 81.8 percent higher than the
                                          national average airfare and 79.5 percent higher than the airfares paid by
                                          passengers at airports serving comparably sized communities. Travelers
                                          flying to or from Charleston paid an average airfare of 21.3 cents per mile,
                                          an amount 46.0 percent higher than the national average and 30.2 percent
                                          higher than the average airfares paid by passengers at comparably sized
                                          airports. Only at Myrtle Beach, where passengers paid airfares averaging
                                          16.6 cents per mile in 1998 were airfares more favorable. Airfares at that
                                          airport were 14.0 percent higher than the national average but 0.5 percent
                                          lower than the airfares paid at comparably sized airports. We believe that
                                          the average airfares at Myrtle Beach have compared more favorably than

                                           Average airfares for passengers flying to or from South Carolina’s airports are expected to be
                                          somewhat higher than the overall national average because many South Carolina trips tend to be
                                          relatively short. Short trips generally have higher costs per mile than longer trips, thus accounting for
                                          some of the difference against the national average.

                                          Page 5                                                                            GAO/T-RCED-99-117
                                          those at the other South Carolina airports because Myrtle Beach is
                                          principally a vacation destination and it has low-cost competition. Table 2
                                          identifies the average airfares paid by passengers at each airport serving
                                          the four communities in South Carolina and table 3 compares the percent
                                          difference in the average airfares paid by passengers in the four
                                          communities with those of comparably sized communities and those of all
                                          U.S. communities included in our review.

                                          Table 2: Average Airfares Paid by Passengers Flying to or From Communities in
                                          South Carolina, 1990-98

                                                                                          Average airfare, in cents per mile
                                          Community                                                      1990                  1998
                                          Charleston                                                     22.8                  21.3
                                          Columbia                                                       25.5                  24.6
                                          Greenville-Spartanburg                                         26.7                  26.5
                                          Myrtle Beach                                                   23.7                  16.6
                                          Source: GAO’s analysis of data from Data Base Products, Inc.

Table 3: Percent Difference in Average Airfares Between Airports Serving Communities in South Carolina and Other
Communities, 1990-98
                                                              Percent difference in average airfares
                                 Between community and comparably sized                Between community and all continental U.S.
                                             communities                                           communities
Community                                          1990                        1998                       1990                 1998
Charleston                                             8.5                     30.2                        22.5                46.0
Columbia                                             21.7                      50.5                        37.4                68.8
Greenville-Spartanburg                               40.7                      79.5                        43.7                81.8
Myrtle Beach                                           14                       -0.5                       27.5                14.0
                                          Source: GAO’s analysis of data from Data Base Products, Inc.

                                          Page 6                                                                  GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Overall Quality of Air                    Although our previous review found that airports serving smaller
                                          communities were not as likely as those serving larger communities to
Service Has Generally                     experience an overall increase in the quality of air service, the airport
Increased at Myrtle                       serving Myrtle Beach did experience an increase in scheduled departures,
                                          available seats, and jet service. The airport serving Greenville-Spartanburg,
Beach and                                 much like other airports serving larger communities, also experienced an
Greenville-Spartanburg                    overall increase in the quality of air service.

                                          The airports serving Charleston and Columbia, like those serving other
                                          smaller communities, experienced an overall decline in the quality of air
                                          service. For example, from 1978 through 1998, the airport serving
                                          Charleston experienced a 2-percent decrease in scheduled departures, a
                                          16-percent decrease in available seats, a 10-percent decrease in nonstop
                                          flights, and a 22-percent decrease in jet service. Table 4 provides
                                          information on the percent change in the quality of air service from 1978
                                          through 1998 for each of the four airports in South Carolina.10 Figure 2
                                          compares the difference in the quality of air service between Charleston
                                          and other airports serving comparably sized communities from 1978
                                          through 1998.

Table 4: Percent Change in Measures of Air Service Quality, 1978-98
                                                          Percent change in measures of quality, 1978-98
                                                                              Nonstop              One-stop                Jet             Nonjet
Community                             Departures            Seats              service              service            service            service
Charleston                                      -2             -16                   -10                   19                -22                 58
Columbia                                       -50              -28                  -67                  -33                -19                 -78
Greenville-Spartanburg                          75              49                     9                   30                 44                 285
Myrtle Beach                                   132             184                    71                   83               399                  -31
                                          Source: GAO’s analysis of airline schedule information provided by the Department of Transportation.

                                            All statistics referring to departures in this report are based on the number of scheduled nonstop
                                          flights from each airport.

                                          Page 7                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-99-117
                         Figure 2: Percent Change in Measures of Air Service Quality at Charleston and
                         Other Airports Serving Comparably Sized Communities, 1978-98 (Percent change,

                         170                                                                                                         167




                          50             38

                                                         15                               19

                                                                             -7                   -4                 -6
                                  -2             -16                 -10
                                                     s                   s                    s
                                     s             at                  ht                   ht                ice              ice
                                rtu             Se                 flig                 flig               erv              erv
                              pa                             to
                                                                                    p                    ts               ts
                            De                             ns                   -s                     Je              nje
                                                          o                    e                                      o
                                                         N                   On                                      N

                                                                   Measures of service
                            Charleston        Comparably sized communities
                         Source: GAO’s analysis of airline schedule information provided by the Department of Transportation.

In the Charleston        Information on changes in average airfares can provide useful insights into
                         trends for airfares to or from particular airports. However, information on
Market, Business Fares   average airfares does not reveal how airfares paid by individuals vary
Increased While          depending on their particular destination, purpose of travel (i.e., business
                         or leisure), length of trip, or carrier chosen. Therefore, we examined some
Leisure Fares            of these variations in much more depth and can now provide more
Remained Stable          information on the underlying causes of Charleston’s relatively high
                         average airfares.

                         Page 8                                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Because available airline data do not distinguish the purposes for which
passengers are traveling (i.e., business or leisure), we estimated changes in
airfares paid by Charleston passengers who purchased business and leisure
tickets. We identified representative airfares for business and leisure
passengers for each carrier in all markets serving Charleston using
accepted analytic techniques to account for the general tendency for
leisure airfares to be less expensive than business airfares. 11

US Airways and Delta Air Lines have dominated Charleston’s air market
during this decade. The most recent information indicates that in 1998,
Delta carried 48 percent of passengers and US Airways carried 41 percent
of passengers to and from Charleston. Against those two carriers’ large
market presence, there has been relatively little market entry since 1990.
Eastern Airlines provided service to Charleston until it failed financially,
and American stopped providing service to Charleston in 1994. On the
other hand, Continental and Midway entered Charleston’s market, as did
two new airlines--Air South and AirTran--neither of which continues to
operate at Charleston.12 Figure 3 shows the change in the market share of
major airlines, as measured by the percent of passengers carried, at
Charleston from 1990 through 1998.

  Leisure travelers generally pay less than business travelers do because they can take advantage of
discounts associated with advance purchase and overnight stay requirements, whereas business
travelers often cannot. To estimate the difference in these types of airfares, we examined the
distribution of airfares in each market. We assumed that airfares at the 25th percentile are
representative of airfares paid by leisure travelers and that airfares at the 75th percentile are
representative of airfares paid by business travelers. This is the same approach being used by the
Transportation Research Board for its ongoing review of competitive issues in the airline industry.
 Last week, Continental Express, Continental’s regional subsidiary, began new nonstop service to
Houston using a 50-passenger regional jet. This daily service will complement Continental’s current
service to Houston, which stops at Atlanta.

Page 9                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Figure 3: Percent of Charleston Passengers Carried by Major Airlines, 1990-98










Source: GAO’s analysis of information from Data Base Products, Inc.

In 1998, approximately 1.4 million passengers flew to or from 288 different
airports serving the Charleston market. However, more than half of those
passengers flew to or from just 17 airports. Those 17 airports are generally
dominated by either one or both of two airlines--US Airways and Delta Air
Lines. There is no low-cost competition in these markets. Relatively few
of these markets are among the nation’s largest, as measured by the
number of passenger trips made between those points of origin and
destination. Of all city-pair markets in the United States in 1998, the market
between Charleston and Atlanta (Charleston’s largest market) ranked 830th,
that between Charleston and New York City (including all three of that
area’s major airports) ranked 440th, and that between Charleston and
Washington, D.C. (Reagan National), ranked 870th in the United States in
1998. Charleston’s 17 largest markets served an average of 193 passengers
per day. Figure 4 identifies Charleston’s top 17 markets.

Page 10                                                               GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Figure 4: Charleston’s Top Origin and Destination Markets

                                          From the second quarter of 1992 through the second quarter of 1998,
                                          leisure airfares generally decreased while business airfares rose
                                          significantly. Among trips of various distances, the difference in airfares
                                          for leisure and business passengers was greatest for short trips. In 1992,
                                          one-way business airfares on short trips originating in Charleston cost, on
                                          average, $0.46 per mile, while similar leisure airfares cost $0.22 (a
                                          difference of 113 percent).13 In 1998, one-way business airfares on short
                                          trips originating in Charleston cost, on average, $0.55 per mile, while
                                          similar leisure airfares cost $0.18 (a difference of 207 percent). Figure 5
                                          compares average business and leisure airfares for 1992, 1995, and 1998.

                                           Cities included in the short trip category include Atlanta, New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, and

                                          Page 11                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Figure 5: Average Business and Leisure Airfares, by Length of Trip, in Constant
Dollars, for 1992, 1995, and 1998 (Constant 1998 cents per mile)































                                              Short    Medium        Long

Source: GAO’s analysis of information from Data Base Products, Inc.

In summary, at three of the four airports serving communities in South
Carolina that we reviewed--Charleston, Columbia, and
Greenville-Spartanburg--airfares have fallen slightly since 1990 but have
increased over the last few years. At Charleston and Columbia, the overall
quality of air service has also declined. In addition, at Charleston, business
fares have increased significantly, particularly to many of the destinations
important to the community’s passengers. Only at the airport serving
Myrtle Beach did the community benefit from both a significant decrease in
average airfares and an increase in the quality of air service. We believe
that Myrtle Beach may have benefited from deregulation more than the
other communities in our review because it is primarily a leisure
destination and has low-cost competition. As we have reported
consistently, competition is the most important factor in ensuring that the
benefits of deregulation are extended throughout the country.

Page 12                                                                               GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Mr. Chairman, this concludes our prepared statement. We would be glad to
respond to any questions that you or any Member of the Committee may

Page 13                                                 GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Page 14   GAO/T-RCED-99-117
Related GAO Products

             Airline Deregulation: Changes in Airfares, Service Quality, and Barriers to
             Entry (GAO/RCED-99-92, Mar. 4, 1999).

             Aviation Competition: Effects on Consumers From Domestic Airline
             Alliances Vary (GAO/RCED-99-37, Jan. 15, 1999).

             Aviation Competition: Proposed Domestic Airline Alliances Raise Serious
             Issues (GAO/T-RCED-98-215, June 4, 1998).

             Domestic Aviation: Service Problems and Limited Competition Continue in
             Some Markets (GAO/T-RCED-98-176, Apr. 23, 1998).

             Aviation Competition: International Aviation Alliances and the Influence of
             Airline Marketing Practices (GAO/T-RCED-98-131, Mar. 19, 1998).

             Airline Competition: Barriers to Entry Continue in Some Domestic
             Markets (GAO/T-RCED-98-112, Mar. 5, 1998).

             Domestic Aviation: Barriers Continue to Limit Competition (GAO/T-RCED-
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             Airline Deregulation: Addressing the Air Service Problems of Some
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             International Aviation: Competition Issues in the U.S.-U.K. Market (GAO/T-
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             Domestic Aviation: Barriers to Entry Continue to Limit Benefits of Airline
             Deregulation (GAO/T-RCED-97-120, May 13, 1997).

             Airline Deregulation: Barriers to Entry Continue to Limit Competition in
             Several Key Domestic Markets (GAO/RCED-97-4, Oct. 18, 1996).

             Domestic Aviation: Changes in Airfares, Service, and Safety Since Airline
             Deregulation (GAO/T-RCED-96-126, Apr. 25, 1996).

             Airline Deregulation: Changes in Airfares, Service, and Safety at Small,
             Medium-Sized, and Large Communities (GAO/RCED-96-79, Apr. 19, 1996).

             International Aviation: Airline Alliances Produce Benefits, but Effect on
             Competition Is Uncertain (GAO/RCED-95-99, Apr. 6, 1995).

             Page 15                                                    GAO/T-RCED-99-117
                   Related GAO Products

                   Airline Competition: Higher Fares and Less Competition Continue at
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                   Computer Reservation Systems: Action Needed to Better Monitor the CRS
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                   Airline Competition: Effects of Airline Market Concentration and Barriers
                   to Entry on Airfares (GAO/RCED-91-101, Apr. 26, 1991).

                   Airline Deregulation: Trends in Airfares at Airports in Small and Medium-
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                   Airline Competition: Industry Operating and Marketing Practices Limit
                   Market Entry (GAO/RCED-90-147, Aug. 29, 1990).

                   Airline Competition: Higher Fares and Reduced Competition at
                   Concentrated Airports (GAO/RCED-90-102, July 11, 1990).

                   Airline Deregulation: Barriers to Competition in the Airline Industry
                   (GAO/T-RCED-89-65, Sept. 20, 1989).
                   Airline Competition: Fare and Service Changes at St. Louis Since the TWA -
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                   Competition in the Airline Computerized Reservation Systems (GAO/T-
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                   Airline Competition: Impact of Computerized Reservation Systems (GAO/
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                   Airline Takeoff and Landing Slots: Department of Transportation's Slot
                   Allocation Rule (GAO/RCED-86-92, Jan. 31, 1986).

                   Deregulation: Increased Competition Is Making Airlines More Efficient and
                   Responsive to Consumers (GAO/RCED-86-26, Nov. 6, 1985).

(348155)   Leter   Page 16                                                  GAO/T-RCED-99-117
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