How Tough is it to Travel from a Small Airport: Fact Checking the New York Times

Joe Sharkey has a column on how small airports are seeing air service disappear.

He begins to make his case with a story about how tough it was for his son to get from Tucson to India.

Starting his trip at the Tucson airport would have meant leaving home at 9:30 a.m. for a connection on US Airways to Phoenix, to board a 9:15 p.m. nonstop to London on British Airways (connecting to Delhi). Instead, by driving the two hours from Tucson to the far bigger Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, he was able to leave home at 4:30 p.m.

Sharkey posits that his son saved 7 hours by driving to Phoenix rather than flying out of Tucson.

My reactions to this.

  • If it were actually true, that would be a pretty good argument that we don’t need smaller airports!
  • 5 days a week the BA flight leaves at 7:40pm. A 9:15pm departure means his son left on Saturday.
  • There’s a 6:10pm flight on Saturdays that arrives Phoenix at 7:00pm. that would have given him a 2 hour 15 minute connection. Why would he have had to leave home at 9:30am? That makes no sense.
  • If the 6:10pm flight from Tucson was sold out, he could have gotten on the 5. Or the 3:20pm.
  • But if the argument is “given the need for minimum connecting time, and that I have to drive to the Tucson airport anyway, I might as well fly out of Phoenix” then that’s plausible. But it’s not an argument for frequent air service out of Tucson. Quite the contrary.

Fact checking matters. Facts matter. The rest of the narrative depends on it.

He then explains that his son flew on an American Airlines ticket, even though he was traveling on British Airways. He explains global alliances and lists several alliance members. From which he concludes,

In short, while you still can get there from here, it’s becoming more complicated if you live in a midsize or smaller city, and even in some bigger cities that have fallen off airline hub networks.

Although I’m not sure how that’s more complicated at all, back before airline alliances there were interline agreements and a single airline could sell you a ticket involving travel on other carriers. Departing Tucson on US Airways, as he posits his son would have done, would never have gotten the son to India on US Airways no matter how hard Joe Sharkey closed his eyes and clicked his heels.

Now, if the point is that airlines are trying to run themselves as businesses and don’t want to offer money-losing service that would be a fair proposition. I think Joe gets here. He recognizes that offering subsidies to incentivize air service that the airlines won’t do on their own because they’re money losers usually doesn’t work out.

But I don’t feel sorry for Joe’s son. Unless, of course, he had to fly to India in coach.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. i read Joe Sharkey’s column each Tuesday, and typically seems reasonable. i read your remarks above. then i just now did an ita matrix search, and as you suggest something Sharkey says about his son’s travel doesn’t add up — Tucson has the service. what seems to be the come to jesus is the pricing. if you want the more direct routing w/o the long lay overs and roundabout routing, you have to pay a higher fare. where did cheapest most directly routing from a midsize airport become a right? now i sound like a republican i’m not!

  2. Why feel sorry for someone flying in coach? That person still gets to travel the world. Our forefathers did not have such options as cheap, worldwide travel. When economy prices for US – India fares are $790 round-trip on *A carriers, why would one use miles at all?

  3. sorry for writing too much – i commute btw Fresno & MSP typically on Delta thru SLC (other connections are LAX, SFO, PHX, LAS, SEA, PDX, DFW, DEN) so Fresno probably airport about same size as Tucson (or smaller). Sharkey’s story should have talked about the airport SMALLER than Tucson, the small mid-sized towns. yes, they’ve lost CRJ/E145 service, which is ending. that’s a story, not a new one, but not Tucson.

  4. Its all about the narrative. You write your conclusion first, then marshal the talking points that pretend to lead to that conclusion, even though they usually don’t. That’s why it’s called Lame Stream Media (ie the journalistic version of SkyPesos….) 😉

  5. What an odd thing to write a story about. Of course if you’re flying from a (small) airport you’ll often be adding hours on to your trip. That’s life. I’ll tell you one thing that’s good about out of the way airports, often the agents working don’t know all the rules and it can work to your advantage. Years ago when USAir gave Systemwide Upgrade Coupons to their CP members I used the same SWU coupon to upgrade to Envoy 7 times. They agents didn’t know to collect it and I guess higher mgmt. never caught on.

  6. @ Dan – different travel styles. One can use X set of miles for J/F travel and not do any paid travel. One can also pick up great fares in Y and see more of the world.

    Furthermore, if this kid is really a kid, shouldn’t he at least learn some life lessons and be in Y for long-haul. Then when he makes it in life, or just learns how to use credit cards properly, he can at least appreciate J/F travel.

  7. Acker,
    that’s not limited to US Air. I used ot fly UA from FAT-LAX-DEN. I recall using my (I think Chase United 1000 mile upgrade) paper cert over and over again for good part of the year in early 2000s. That station was run by UA Express and indeed they didnt know that they had to collect the cert. Oh! the good days. My co-workers always wondered why I flew FAT-LAX-DEN, instead of FAT-DEN non-stop.

  8. I simply cannot understand why smaller communities should be subsidised by Federal dollars to have air service that they are not willing to pay for. When you choose to live in a smaller community, you get certain benefits (more space, less crowded etc.) but you forego others (fewer restaurants, no Broadway, and more difficult to get elsewhere). It’s the compromise those folks have accepted.

  9. @Stargold UA – Indeed, FAT-DEN was a one-cabin CRJ. Rather long flight for that for my tastes. I lived in FAT for a time, and went back to visit many times, and I don’t think they ever took my paper 500 milers there…

  10. @David – “where did cheapest most directly routing from a midsize airport become a right? now i sound like a republican i’m not!” Made me smile.

  11. I realize this is neither Gary nor Sharkey’s main point, but no one seems to be mentioning the advantages of starting from a small airport: shorter lines at security, cheaper parking, and in my experience, less frazzled staff who’s more willing to help you since they just aren’t as busy during the day.

  12. @Becky, you have a point. I recently flew out of Topeka, Kan., which just got scheduled service – two flights a day to Chicago on United. Parking was $5 for the entire trip (not daily), the walk from the parking lot to the counter took all of one minute, which was about the time it took to go through security.

    Now the weird thing was that my flight, the second of the day, was oversold and they were looking for volunteers to give up their seats. With no alternate routings or flights possible, who is going to give up a seat for a voucher?

  13. What Becky said about Topeka is true about Tucson. TUS is a beautiful airport with cheap parking, easy and friendly security, short walks and decent enough connections.
    The problem is US. Those flights from TUS-PHX are often delayed or canceled, which is why most of us will avoid connecting in Phoenix or book an earlier flight.
    But you’re right, the 3:20 would have been plenty early enough to allow for a cancellation or delay.

  14. @Becky-very true! I live in Baton Rouge, and usually fly out of BTR rather than MSY in New Orleans. Fares are usually a little higher, but that is more than offset by the savings in time, gas, and parking fees, and especially in the time saved getting to/from the airport and going through security. I think the longest it has ever taken me to get from the parking garage to the departure gate has been 30 minutes-and that was because I forgot my Swiss army knife was still in my backpack and TSA told me to run put it back in my car.

  15. It’s really not hard to get anywhere from a small airport. It is generally more expensive, though. I have PWM 30 mins from me and BOS about 90 mins. BOS is nice for the nonstop flights, but PWM is way less of a hassle even if it involves a layover. The problem is almost always price.

  16. Glad you picked up on this Gary. My husband, who reads the NYT first in the A.M,started quoting from the story and I said that does not sound right.There is a roster of daily flights from TUS to PHX. LK brings up a good point…very often those flights are cancelled or delayed so one must allow enough connecting time.
    Mr. Sharkey makes a good point; however he should get his facts straight if he wants to remain credible. Also, Tucson can hardly be called a “small” airport. Mid-size yes…small no.

  17. The trip to India was specifically described as a business trip, so I doubt it was in coach if it even happened at all. Considering that we’re all so shocked that a writer didn’t fact check a story from his own son, how do we know that he took any flight? Maybe there’s a reason that he wanted his own car in Phoenix that he felt his dad didn’t need to know, and maybe he didn’t realize he was going to be quoted in the New York Times for giving excuses about his movements to his own father.

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