In fact, the number of travelers on many short-haul routes has dropped significantly in the past two decades. Passengers have been chased away by a combination of factors — higher fares, more airport hassles, repeated recessions, new technology for video meetings — even as the number of travelers boarding U.S. airlines has climbed.
According to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, it's a phenomenon that has hit many routes and most airlines. Consider these numbers:
• In 1990, people flying on short-haul routes, 400 miles or less, made up nearly 34% of domestic passengers on U.S. airlines. In 2009, the last year for which full numbers are available, the percentage had dropped to 26.6%.
Southwest saw the share of its annual passenger load who take short-haul flights decline from nearly 59% in 1990 to just under 35% by 2009.
The average Southwest passenger in 1990 traveled 502 miles each way. In 2009, that average trip lengthened to 863 miles, a 72% increase.
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who advises airports on how to attract new service, said the trend was a national one.
"Air transportation does not work for many short-haul markets as well as it did for 20 or 30 years, for a couple of reasons," Boyd said.
What happened to these trips? Are they being forgone, or substituted with teleconferencing, rail or driving? These are stark numbers:
But Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said it was much more than that, as Southwest is just one player in a national story. And the national story is that many short-haul routes are handling fewer passengers today than 10 or 20 years ago.
For example, 2.2 million passengers flew between Phoenix and Los Angeles in 1990, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. By 2009, that had dropped to just under 1.3 million, a 41% drop.
On the 185-mile route between Boston Logan and LaGuardia, the passenger totals dropped from 1.8 million in 1990 to 1 million in 2009, down 45%.
The 237-mile route between St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., has seen a 48% decline in passengers, from 430,600 in 1990 to 223,835 in 2009.
"One has to speculate about the causes, but what we do know historically about short-haul travel is that it tends to be dominated by business travelers," Kelly said. "Because of that it is very sensitive to the economic cycle. In recessions we have always experienced a drop in business travel."
So the recession may have eliminated some trips. This decline in short haul air travel needs more study. If we are going to build many new high speed rail lines to serve the short haul market, we better figure out what is happening to those travelers. Here is something we know and should keep in mind:
"We know a couple of things: We know that short-haul traffic is more elastic and price-sensitive than long-haul traffic," Kelly said.