Short Haul Flying is Down 30% Costing Airlines $3 Billion a Year

Even as air travel in the U.S. has grown 30% since 2000, flying under 500 miles has declined by about 30%. That’s a shocking figure.

One major factor seems to be the increased hassle of flying over the last 17 years. That’s not entirely a function of TSA security, increasing the time or at least variability in how long it takes to get through the airport. The longer it takes to travel by air, the more attractive it is either not to go or to take other forms of transportation.

But there are other things that make air travel more of a hassle, like the spread of populations in major urban areas so that they may be farther from the airport. One additional theory would be that plane travel itself is less pleasant, and that’s probably true with service cuts since the Great Recession and with packed flights since the post-recession recovery and industry consolidation, though the trend seems to predate both.

Lots of graphs, the piece considers and largely rejects airline consolidation alone or price increases on short flights as driving the reduction in short haul flying.

As for how big a deal this trend is,

[T]he additional hassle of air travel seems to have had a devastating (albeit not exclusive) effect on short haul air travel. The U.S. airline industry has lost over $770 million in short haul quarterly revenues from reduced traffic in Q1 2017 alone. Over the past 17 years, this adds up to a $33.7 billion (with a “B”) reduction in revenues from passengers flying short-haul sectors below 500 miles.

An annualized $3 billion loss in revenue seems like it would be enough to fight for. It’s difficult to open more government-run airports, and it’s difficult to make flying more seamless. The efforts here have focused on TSA PreCheck, but airlines have also had an incentive to make flying more difficult through TSA security procedures. The government requirement that we show ID, that travelers match itineraries, supports the airline’s revenue management and price discrimination programs for instance.

And airlines didn’t object on behalf of passengers to naked imaging, even no longer in use backscatter imaging machines whose radiation levels may have been unsafe. Airlines didn’t object to full data sharing with the government. Or profiling of passengers. Airlines didn’t support measures that the TSA wanted that would have made screening more efficient, like no longer looking for golf clubs and looking for bombs instead. Carry on clubs remain banned.

(HT: Cranky Flier)

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. The internet/telecommuting/video conferencing is likely to blame for a good part of that drop as well. My wife used to travel a few times a quarter to various meetings in neighboring states that she does over conferencing now.

  2. The “hassle factor” is real. But I have to tell you, in years past, I’d always fly from, let’s say DCA to RDU, to visit my family for no other reason than making sure I was padding my segments for elite status. Nowadays, no way. Not worth the bother. I’m sure I’m a small segment of flyer….but the evolution of “loyalty” has taken it’s toll on my own short haul flying.

  3. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading yofur work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


  4. No surprise. As the airport experience has gotten worse, the competition on a lot of the short haul routes also got much better. Amtrak dominates BOS-NYC and NYC-DC market share. A lot of the intercity buses are now even nicer than cramming onto a CR7 with better schedules.

  5. @Autumn Cote, Get off the internet. Pay people for content. Your website is another stupid idea that is doomed to fail.

  6. So here’s the problem — FOR ME. I live in Berkeley, CA, and I have family in Santa Barbara. (No teleconferencing possible.) I have easy access to both SFO and OAK by both car and BART (our local version of a subway/mass transit system). Here are my options for an SFO/OAK-SBA round-trip, booked 21+ days out and including a Saturday night stay over:

    1) $252 round-trip. On AA, routed OAK-PHX, PHX-SBA, with a 2:38 layover @ PHX (and a similar layover on the way back). Total flight time to SBA, 6:04 PLUS the extra time needed to check-in, clear TSA, etc. Figure that’s at least an extra 90 min. at best spent at the airport, plus a 30-60 min. drive to the airport, depending upon traffic. Total travel time, ONE-WAY: 8-9 hours.
    2) $316 round-trip. On UA, routed SFO-LAX, LAX-SBA with a 0:50-2:30 layover @ LAX (and a similar layover on the way back). Total flight time to SBA: 3:34-4:54. Total one-way travel time: 5.5-7.5 hours.
    3) $342 round-trip. On AS, routed SFO-SEA, SEA-SBA with a 0:55 layover @SEA (and a 1:23 layover on the return) Total flight time, one-way: 5:28. Total one-way travel time: 7.5-8.5 hours, including time spent getting to and at SFO.
    4) $352 r/t. On UA, routed SFO-SBA NONSTOP (!). Total flight time, one-way: 1:15-1:25. Total one-way travel time: approx. 3.5-4 hours.
    5) <$100 r/t. On VX, WN, SFO-LAX nonstop. Then, rent a car, and drive 1.5 hours to Santa Barbara. Approx. total travel time: 4.5-6 hours, and then there's the cost of the rental.

    On my last trip to Santa Barbara, two weeks ago, I opted to drive. Travel time: 6 hours each way. I averaged 50 mpg for the entire 700 mile round trip, which I did on one tank of gas (well, diesel). Much more relaxing, and much better music!

  7. I spend LESS time from curb to departure today than 17 years ago, not more. However the gate to gate time has increased due to longer and more frequent delays. Those delays are more prominent on short flights than long flights.

    If you can’t depend on your arrival time you have to plan for the worst case. Then you might decide to drive or not make the trip at all.

    In short, the problem is congestion and failure to build new airports, not the TSA.

  8. @nsx — If you truly spend LESS time at the airport pre-departure, I would venture to say you’re one of only a very few (presuming you’re not a LEO). Even with CLEAR and TSA Pre-Check, which absolutely DO get me through security faster, I now arrive at the airport 1:30-2:00 prior to the scheduled departure — pre-9/11, I only had to do that (for domestic flights) if I was trying to catch a seat on the old PSA “Midnight Flyer” ($10/ow between LAX-SFO) back in my hippie youth.

    That said, vis-a-vis your comment that, “[T]he problem is congestion and failure to build new airports, not the TSA,” whoever said it was an either/or problem? I have no doubt in my mind it’s BOTH!

    Certainly the USA needs to add new airports, as well as repair/expand existing ones. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. The TSA is another story, however.

    Whether it’s TSA employees or some contracted security company (such as Covenant Aviation Security, LLC @ SFO), screeners are often rude, inept, and either fail to follow the rules or seem to invent new ones on the spot. Even with Pre-Check, sometimes I’m told I need to remove my belt and shoes, sometimes not; while most times I can leave my laptop in my TSA-compliant backpack or briefcase, other times I need to take it out. I’ve had knee replacement surgery, and so I have to go through the scanner rather than the metal detector; sometimes I breeze right through, and sometimes I’ve waited as long as 15 minutes to be escorted to one because, for example, SFO doesn’t have one installed for Pre-Check passengers.

    And the TSA agents FAIL to detect threats in testing 94% of the time! [Insert “rolling eyes” emoji here]

  9. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone and all markets
    But last night I arrived on BA in First Class on an A380 to SFO
    Good flight then took an easy shuttle air train to Terminal 2 and flew Virgin America
    Sfo to San Diego for 57 dollars total
    Brilliant and Alaska Airlines/Virgin created great value and made it a pleasure
    On the other hand you have a cancer called American Airlines who has the commuter terminal from hell at LAX that you reach by packed sardine bus and wait like an animal
    in the middle of nowhere to fly LAX to San Diego for 300 to 400 oneway on a crappy plane where your seat is small and your leg room is so bad it will make you feel sorry you were born
    And then there is their surly cranky bitchy service to boot
    Who wouldn’t want to drive over fly?
    Then they beat the crap out of your luggage as a bonus

  10. Once fully autonomous highway travel in cars become available, many public transport systems, including short haul air routes, will be decimated. If you can sleep or read on-ramp to off-ramp, with zero intervention expected, you’ll see many more people opt for their cars rather than public transit. The technology for local roads may be many years away, but for highways, we’re not that far.

  11. TSA’s PreCheck is quite pleasant, far better and faster than pre-9/11 security.

    But cost of ticket).

    People are not stupid and have voted with their wallets.

    If only the US had some decent high-speed-rail!

  12. On behalf of @Autumn Cote, a person I do not know, let me just suggest to @RF that you kindly go fuck yourself.

  13. TSA’s PreCheck is quite pleasant, far better and faster than pre-9/11 security.

    But short haul is now primarily served by expensive uncomfortable regional jets with narrow plasticized seats that are hard as benches and smushed together, who are often delayed, and whose tickets are nonrefundable and practically nonchangeable (given change fees greater than cost of ticket).

    People are not stupid and have voted with their wallets.

    If only the US had some decent high-speed-rail!

  14. Its because they killed the propeller planes. IE, Fresno had 7 daily flights to LAX. They cut the props, added jets. Great, but they kept the seat totals the same, meaning now there are 3 frequencies. Hm, those frequencies dont work. Have to drive. Also killed flights to Vegas, Burbank, and other markets that could support a 35pax plane but not a 75pax plane.

  15. @ Jake —> I can’t see high-speed rail taking the place of planes between major cities (e.g.: LA-SF; SF-Seattle; LA-Chicago). Even at high speed, the travel takes too long (OK, maybe not on short-haul routes like LA-SF, or shuttles between NYC and DC); it’s far too expensive build and maintain; and as long as freight has the right-of-way as it does now, it’s hopeless. Better off hoping for something like the hyperloop to work successfully.

    @ JJJ —> Agreed on all counts.

  16. I’ve stopped flying AA DCA to CLT as too many delays, flight cancellations from thunderstorms, and most of all the time savings in flying over driving was about an one hour. All for over priced flight to a captive AA hub. Stopped. Price and poor flight experience were the primary reason

  17. I agree with nycman. Self -driving cars will practically eliminate short-haul flights. Airlines would be daft to chase that market.

  18. For multi-person short range travel, personal vehicle travel becomes much more economical than multi-stop air travel. Non stop air travel is hard to beat, but adding one or two stops levels the playing field.
    If it takes 3 hours to get to your seat on the plane, and by car you are only 6-7 hours away from your destination, why bother with air travel. If you live in a hub city, its a simple decision, but for most people, SWA is the “hub” airline, and the legacy carriers are viable if you have or want points, or they happen to be competing with no frill carriers.
    If the future is cost conscious consumers, not business travelers, then the destinations are going to be further or over bodies of water (no cars), and plans made well in advance, and we will be using credit card points, coupons, green stamps, groupon, discount codes, whatever trick we can find. And, since we know that some no-frills carriers don’t travel everyday or so infrequently, that any disruption could ruin a vacation, we won’t be using that particular airline for the departure city. But may use them on the return leg.
    I am sure the airlines already know this and are positioning for it. You don’t get to be a 50 year old business by not preparing 5-10 years out.

  19. Cheap gas and higher airline fares. Yes, overall fares are lower but do you see $29 & $39 one-way flights on WN? Nope, not anymore, and fares are even higher on Fridays/Sundays which are big for short-haul leisure travelers. I am sure the low level of customer service plays a part as well. Why fly when you will get nickel & dimed for everything and may possibly be dragged off the plane like Dr. Dao?
    It is a bit odd as so many millenials don’t own cars and thus would not have that option – maybe they just don’t do short hauls anymore

  20. @Boraxo —> Do I see $29-$39 one-way fares on Southwest? No. But I don’t see $10-12.50 fares between LAX-SFO on PSA, either.¹ But I do see $49 fares on WN² . . . or B6 or VX from time to time. Granted, these are often (but not always) SALE fares and not their everyday rates, but what I *will* say about WN is that — unlike what you wrote above — you will NOT “get nickel & dimed for everything and may possibly be dragged off the plane like Dr. Dao” (e.g.: no extra fees for checked bags).

    I will *still* fly between the Bay Area (SFO/OAK/SJC) and Los Angeles (LAX, BUR), and I will still fly to LAS, SNA, and SAN. What I will *not* do is fly between the Bay Area and SBA, MRY, FAT, etc., etc., etc. — small, regional airport that are served by regional jets and cost an arm and a leg to fly in and out of.³ Much rather drive . . . .

    ¹ Fares of my youth. PSA (the original Pacific Southwest Airlines, not that “sham” PSA regional carrier, wholly owned by AA, which bought the trademark and logos and is now based in Ohio) charged $12.50 one-way between the two cities — $10 if you took their “Midnight Flyer” that departed, well, around midnight.

    ² For example, on Southwest, between LAX-OAK, departing on either Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, 9/19, 9/20, or 9/23, 9/26, 9/27, or 9/30 and returning on any of those same dates: $49/each way. Similarly, JetBlue has $49 fares one way to/from LGB-OAK, LGB-SFO; $50 to/from LGB-SJC. As for Virgin America, there are $49 fares available from 9/11 through 10/31 and beyond!

    ³ For example, from SFO-MRY on United, departing 9/19 and returning 9/23, flying on a CRJ, the fare is $282 EACH way! I can drive there in 2-2.5 hours. Same dates between SFO-SBA, non-stop flights are $262 each way. (Cheaper to fly to LAX on VX for $49/each way and rent a car.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *