July 31, 2015
Florida's unfriendly skies

Photo: Colin Hackley

Flying from other cities in Florida to Tallahassee Regional Airport can involve a detour to Atlanta.

Florida's unfriendly skies

Within Florida, the drive-or-fly decision can be problematic, particularly when it comes to traveling to Tallahassee.

Lilly Rockwell | 4/30/2014

Within Florida, the drive-or-fly decision can be problematic, particularly when it comes to traveling to Tallahassee.

You could almost hear the cheering in Tallahassee in February when a new airline called Florida Express Jet announced that it would offer flights connecting the capital city with Orlando and Fort Lauderdale for one-way fares starting at $69.

On a good day, Tallahassee is at least four hours by car from Orlando and Tampa and eight hours from Miami. Airfare between Tallahassee and Miami can average nearly $300 and if booked with only a few weeks' notice can climb to $400. So it was welcome news to business travelers that another airline was interested in offering low-fare routes within Florida. "Tallahassee is the center of everything in the state; it's been underserved, and the price points have not been very attractive," says Jeff Thompson, director of sales for Florida Express Jet.

The airline said it would use 150-seat Boeing 737s operated by Swift Air, a charter flight operator, with coach seats starting at $69 and business-class starting at $99. Thompson says the airline would target "drivers that have to drive back and forth between Orlando and Tallahassee or between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. "

But less than a month after the airline's announcement, and before any actual flights took off, Florida Express Jet executives canceled the plans. In addition to needing more money, they say, the carrier couldn't arrange for gates at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Customers who had bought tickets were issued refunds.

For all the state's growth, intrastate air service remains a challenge. Airlines, in fact, have steadily cut intrastate air service in Florida over the last 10 years. In 2001, there were 3,363 non-stop flights between cities in Florida. By 2011, there were 1,369, a 60% decline, according to the state Department of Transportation. At Tampa International Airport alone, 150 intrastate flights were cut between 2001 and 2011.

Larger forces are at work: Airline traffic overall has dropped since the early 2000s. International and non-stop domestic flights to destinations outside of Florida also declined, although not as severely.

Cutbacks by big carriers would seem to open the Florida intrastate market to lowcost competitors. But Alan Bender, an airline economist who works for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says it's difficult to charge fares that are low enough to drive demand while still making a profit.

Before Florida Express Jet suspended its plans, Bender had pronounced the carrier's chances as "very slim. " Three daily flights between Tallahassee, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale weren't frequent enough for business travelers, Bender says. "If you're a businessperson, that means if a meeting ends early, you will have to wait for hours for the next flight. You won't do that. You will just drive. "

Bender also believed there wasn't enough demand to fill a 150-seat aircraft. The carrier's fares, he says, "don't even cover the cost of operating the jet. " The only way Florida Express Jet could make money, he says, would be if every flight were full and enough passengers paid fares at the upper end of the carrier's price range at $129 and $149.

Florida Express Jet's troubles may not be the last word on low-fare travel within Florida, however. At least two other lowfare airlines, Spirit and Silver, have had modest success adding routes.

Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways, born from the sale of Gulfstream International assets in 2011, uses small jets that seat 34 people on its 450 weekly flights to 10 cities within Florida. Silver declined a request for an interview.

Silver has targeted smaller markets like Gainesville, Tallahassee and Pensacola as well as Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Fares start at $69 but go up to more than $300 for flights during high-demand times like weekends.

Unlike Florida Express, Silver flies outside of the state, with flights to the Bahamas and to other small communities in the Southeast. It also has partnered with United Airlines, allowing passengers a greater range of destinations and an ability to participate in frequent-flier programs.

"There's more hope for Silver," Bender says. "The small planes are more expensive to operate but easier to fill. " Silver also targets leisure travelers, who are less sensitive to departure and arrival times.

Also based in Fort Lauderdale, Spirit Airlines has made some inroads in the Florida market. Spirit offers flights to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. A midweek flight in March from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando is just $20, with taxes.

Spirit's advertised fares, of course, are somewhat illusory since the carrier notoriously charges for just about every service it provides — for assigned seats, bottled water and for both checking a bag or carrying it on. Spirit has argued that this method of paying-what-you-use is more equitable and attractive to business travelers, who typically travel lighter.

Ultimately, Bender says, the carriers are working against the perception that flying, in many instances, isn't worth the associated annoyances — security lines, flight cancellations and nickel-and-diming charges.

"The airport is such a miserable place," Bender says. "Is it worth saving that extra hour?"

Tags: Travel & Tourism

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