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Moving on: Despite cuts and anger, passengers find ways to get where they're going for the holidays

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2009 - Let's say you're going to Boston for the holidays. And let's say you haven't gotten your ticket yet.

Now, try not to freak out while travel agent Gayle Ailshie looks for a ticket.

American Airlines is the only airline with a direct flight to Boston from St. Louis. And as of Nov. 17, it's cutting down to one flight a day, as well as stopping service to a few other markets, with more cuts to come next year. That one remaining flight a day leaves at 7:20 p.m., so you've either lost a day or rushed over after work.

Ailshie looks for a ticket to Boston from St. Louis, leaving Nov. 23 and returning Nov. 27. She includes a Saturday stay, which usually helps keep prices low.

"So I've followed all the rules," says Ailshie, manager with Travel Haus of St. Louis.

And the damage?

"One thousand dollars."

"You could go to Europe for that, and it's a two-hour flight," says John Barth, who will be traveling to Boston for the holidays.

The cheapest flight Ailshie finds to Boston from St. Louis comes on Air Tran, connecting in Atlanta, for $779.

Barth already bought his ticket and therefore avoided the stratospheric fares. He's flying to Boston mid-December on Southwest. His one-way flight cost $144 and he connects through Chicago. He'll then go and spend time with his parents outside Philadelphia and fly home from Philadelphia before Christmas on Southwest for $137.

This holiday season, Ailshie says, the cut in service will mean holiday travelers, business travelers and everybody inbetween will spend more time getting where they're going.

"They're definitely going to have to connect," she says. "Our non-stops are getting to be nonexistent."

Also, she says, with fewer flights, you can expect them to be fuller and to cost more.

CUT IT OUT

In August, AA cut five direct flights. This month, they'll cut six flights, ending nonstop service to Las Vegas and Seattle and dropping the number of flights to Boston and Chicago. Next year, they'll cut another 46 flights to 20 destinations, leaving cities such as San Francisco, Austin and San Diego with no direct flights on other airlines out of St. Louis.

"The cuts from American beginning now and through the spring are certainly dramatic," says Jeff Lea, public relations manager for Lambert-St. Louis Airport.

But even before the cuts were announced, Lea says, the airport was in talks with other airlines about the opportunities at Lambert. Lea says he can't reveal the six or seven airlines they're talking to through phone and face-to-face meetings, and it's not an overnight deal to bring in new carriers or million-dollar planes.

"It's a long process, which is why you have to continue talking to airlines," added Lea.

Passenger enplanement at Lambert is down 13 percent from last year, Lea says, but St. Louis still has a huge area to draw passengers from regionally. The job for the airport now, he says, is convincing airlines that Lambert can sustain and support growth in this regional market. To do that, Lea says they're building off a marketing plan created two years ago that focuses on developing new air service and cargo. A new campaign will be launched soon, he said, focusing on those same areas.

And already, Lea thinks, the effort is paying off. In the coming months, flights will be added to Mexico, Boston, Minneapolis and San Francisco. Midwest will begin service in St. Louis with flights to Milwaukee, and Southwest will pick up four of the markets being dropped by AA and from St. Louis entirely in May for a total of nine new flights. (See below for specifics.)

"There's no finish line," Lea says. "It's just a continuing effort."

THE INCONVENIENCE FACTOR

Dorothy Doyle is not happy.

Well, actually, she is quite happy mostly, but not at all about the upcoming cuts on American Airlines flights, or the state of travel these days, or her shrinking options.

"Part of the reason it bothers me is that I'm really old," says Doyle, who just turned 80. "And I can't stand dreading missing a connection or having to figure out a new airport."

Doyle flies quite a bit, too, usually non-stop on American to San Francisco to see one of her daughters, or non-stop on American to Atlanta to see another daughter, or to London, which hasn't had a non-stop flight for years now, to see another daughter.

You can see why she'd be a little put out.

"It just makes it all so unpleasant and so troublesome," Doyle says of connections. "It's hardly worth it."

Doyle won't be traveling over Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, but she has a trip planned early November and December already. But for most Americans, Thanksgiving and Christmas are times to travel and see family, whether by car or air. And while the Nov. 19 cuts on American Airlines have some travelers concerned about how they'll get where they want to go, other travelers are already moving on.

ALREADY GONE

Barth, the Boston-bound man with a good deal on Southwest, is already looking for alternatives to American. He flies frequently for business.

"It will make me re-evaluate my membership in the Admirals Club," he said. "And also push me more toward Southwest where I can build miles that I can use later. If AA is abandoning St. Louis, I will return the favor."

He was waiting to board a plane when we caught up with him. And he was flying Delta.

If you're a business traveler in St. Louis, bound for the East or West coasts, American probably was your airline, Barth says, due to the non-stop flights.

Lea, with Lambert, thinks that while business travelers might notice the flight cuts, people who travel infrequently probably won't.

And Robin Weatherall won't be impacted by the American cuts at all this holiday season.

"I never fly American," he says. "Never. I never have since they took over TWA."

Not that the American cuts affect where Weatherall is going this year: Germany. Still, after some bad service in the beginning, he's chosen other airlines and says he's managed just fine.

But for the many American Airlines faithfuls, the loss of some service is troubling. James Wiswall travels to Orlando on American every few years, and his son lives in Seattle. Over time, he's seen his options in departure times shrink, and that has been less convenient. Still, Wiswall figures he'll keep flying American.

While some business travelers we spoke with prefer Southwest, Wiswall thinks the whole system seems kind of stressful.

"I'm not terribly sure how to negotiate that terminal," he says of Lambert's East Terminal, where Southwest is located.

He hears there are no assigned seats, and he doesn't like that, even if rates turn out to be lower. "But I don't know if the lower rates offset the frustration," he says.

THE PRICE IS FLIGHT

Last year, Weatherall's ticket to Germany cost $1,700. This year, it's a little over $600. He watches out for deals online and usually buys about 90 days in advance.

According to an October report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, April to June domestic airfare fell 13 percent from the same time last year. And the bureau reports, that's the lowest second quarter numbers since 1998.

Bing Travel estimates that Thanksgiving fares will be down 22 percent from last year, and Christmas and New Year's fares down 17 percent.

But what about that $1,000 flight to Boston?

Robert Birge, chief marketing officer with Kayak.com , a travel search site, hesitates to predict trends.

"I've read several prognostications about the urgency of booking travel now," he writes in an e-mail. "It seems a bit self-interested perhaps. Of course prices are going up. They basically go up the closer you get to travel dates, that's how the pricing systems are set, with very rare exceptions. And gas prices are up. Also, the pricing can very a great deal by routes, as you know."

Birge suggests people follow some basic guidelines to get a good deal, such as book early, fly on a Saturday, fly at times when other people aren't, and do some research.

IT'S NOT PEORIA

Nearly everyone we spoke with was unhappy about the AA cuts for a number of reasons -- fewer options, less convenience and the feeling that St. Louis was getting demoted.

"I think it says to the rest of the country that St. Louis is quaint," Wiswall says.

"I just don't understand why St. Louis is losing all these flights," Doyle says. "The people I know all fly a lot."

"It's not Peoria," Barth says.

But will the cuts really impact the holidays?

"I don't think it's gonna have any dramatic effect," says Mike Right, vice president of public affairs with AAA. He thinks those cuts will only affect a handful of travelers. About 85 percent of people travel by car during the holidays, Right says.

AAA's holiday travel forecast won't come out until about 10 days before Thanksgiving, but Right expects less travel in general this year, thanks to the economy.

Still, if you haven't gotten that ticket yet, now might be the time to start looking.

Had we bought that ticket to Boston a month ago, Ailshie says, it would have been cheaper. Now, she says, it's all about supply and demand.

"The closer we get, the more people buy, the less available, the higher the price."

Flights out of Lambert

SUBTRACT

On Aug. 25, American Airlines cut direct flights to: Cedar Rapids, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Springfield-Branson, Tulsa.

On Nov. 19, cuts include: Las Vegas, Seattle, two flights to Boston with one left, one flight to Chicago with nine left, one flight to Dallas with eight left.

In 2010, AA will cut 46 direct flights to 20 destinations: Atlanta, Austin, Des Moines, Nashville, Newark, Wichita, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, San Antonio, San Francisco

The cities not served with direct flights by other airlines are: Austin, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Madison, Nashville, Norfolk, Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, San Antonio, San Francisco, Wichita

ADD

In November, Frontier will add weekly flights to Cancun.

In December, FunJet Vacations will have five flights a week to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta seasonally.

In January 2010, Southwest will add twice daily service to Boston and Minneapolis.

In February, United will add a non-stop flight to San Francisco.

In March Midwest will begin service at Lambert with three daily flights to Milwaukee, and Southwest will add one daily flight to Baltimore, Dallas, Las Vegas and Orlando

In May, Southwest will add nine new flight, including picking up four markets that are being dropped from St. Louis with the AA cuts -- Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, New Orleans and San Diego. There will also be direct flights to Los Angeles, Seattle and an additional flight to Minneapolis.

SOURCE: Jeff Lea, Lambert airport

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