THE PROBLEM: Des Moines is not competing well with surrounding airports
The numbers don't lie: Des Moines International Airport has higher ticket prices than airports in surrounding areas, and is falling behind in national airfare rankings. Leaders have identified competitive airfares as a priority, and Aviation Director Don Smithey and others are fighting for a low-cost airline, in hopes of bringing down fares across the board.
It might not come as a surprise that Omaha’s Eppley Airfield has lower airfares than Des Moines International Airport. The same is true of Kansas City International Airport.
The real surprise, though, comes from the eastern part of Iowa. Des Moines had a higher average fare than The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids in 2010 for the second year in a row, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Cedar Rapids had an average fare of $401.47 in 2010, compared with an average fare of $403.23 in Des Moines.
The reaction of one area leader: “Shocked,” said Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly.
Des Moines ranked No. 129 out of 150 in average outbound ticket price, according to a Business Record analysis of the top 150 airports by outgoing passenger volume in 2010. That was despite ranking near the middle of the pack (No. 87) in outgoing passenger volume in 2010.
The average price ranking is the worst that Des Moines has had since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began tracking that figure in 1993.
Des Moines’ average prices were lower in 2010 than they were in 2008 by about $27, and have fluctuated over the years along with the national average. But the airport’s average ticket price ranking among the top 150 airports by volume has fallen steadily every year since it came in at No. 88 in 2003. Des Moines’ best ranking was No. 76 in 1996.
The statistics also show a stark contrast between Des Moines and cities in surrounding states, especially Kansas City and Omaha. To fly out of Kansas City in 2010, it was on average nearly $100 cheaper than it was to fly out of Des Moines. Omaha was more than $70 cheaper.
For his part, Don Smithey, aviation director at the airport, is more focused on the solution than the problem. He said he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the yearly average prices, though “obviously I wish the fares were lower,” he said.
The problem, at its most basic point, is the lack of competition among airlines in Des Moines, he said.
“It’s that simple. It’s lack of a low-fare carrier competition,” Smithey said. To make matters worse, he added, “we’ve seen consolidation take place in the airline industry. So there’s fewer airlines. Therefore you have that market concentrated and much fewer entities working in it.”
There is not much the airport can do to combat high prices by working with specific airlines, he said.
“We can’t influence prices. We can encourage it, but we can’t influence it,” Smithey said. “They can charge basically whatever they wish to.”
Connolly is one of the chairpersons on the physical capital committee for Capital Crossroads, a long-term planning process for Greater Des Moines. One of the goals of her committee is to help the airport become more competitive to attract business travelers, conventions and tourists.
“One of the most principal competitive issues … in Capital Crossroads that our stakeholders mentioned was our high cost, and limited connectivity of flights out of Des Moines International Airport,” Connolly said. “Air service is really critical to tourism and our economic values. That’s why we felt it was definitely one of the strategies we want to work on.”
Though there are no official statistics to back it up, Connolly and Smithey get the sense that people who live within driving distance of Des Moines often choose to catch a flight out of Omaha or Kansas City instead. People who participated in the Capital Crossroads public feedback noted it as well.
“During the surveys, when it came to airlines and airfare, people got tired of driving,” Connolly said. “They don’t understand why they have to drive to Omaha or Kansas City to get a cheap flight. … So that certainly puts us at a competitive disadvantage, I think.”
The Crossroads plan outlines the need for looking at the issue more closely.
“Because air service is so critical to how Greater Des Moines competes for companies, tourism and talent, it would benefit the community to conduct a detailed analysis of regional air service to determine if capacity could be enhanced,” the plan says.
Beyond that, Connolly, who is also on the board of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that Des Moines could be more of a national convention destination if it had lower airfares.
On the same note, Smithey said businesses tell him that Des Moines gets passed up as a destination for business meetings and out-of-state clients to come to due to the cost of flying in and out.
“I want to change that,” he said. “I want people to come here.”
His solution? Provide competition, in the form of Southwest Airlines Co.