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Why Are Nonstops More Expensive than Connecting Flights?

Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Dear Carl,

Why is it more expensive to go directly from location to location vs. a flight with connections?

-(name withheld)

This is a classic airfare question that can be boiled down to a simple enough answer: Supply versus demand. Nonstop routes are a gamble for airlines because they require consistent demand for travel on that exact route. This isn’t usually a problem on popular cross-country routes or for flights to major cities, but on less compelling routes—say, for example, Boston to Indianapolis—demand could be an issue. So if an airline is going to offer nonstop service on a secondary route, it needs to charge more to account for the risk.

Connecting routes solve that problem by funneling all that traffic through a hub-and-spoke system. Instead of flying a half-empty plane from Boston to Indianapolis, airlines fly a full plane to Atlanta or Chicago and send the passengers to their connecting flight, where they either join other passengers who’ve flown into Atlanta and continue to their destination or board a tiny regional jet for a short flight.

For the airlines, this is theoretically a cheaper and more reliable system because it avoids the risk of a nonstop route with unreliable demand. And instead of flying long-distance routes that necessitate larger aircraft, carriers can fly short routes and use smaller (and subsequently fuller) planes.

From a passenger perspective, though, this supply/demand theory is really a simple matter of convenience—and the airlines know it. Nonstop itineraries are shorter overall and less prone to delay or dysfunction, and larger planes tend to be more comfortable and feature better amenities, especially compared to regional jets. You’re paying for peace of mind, a better chance of arriving on time and with all your bags, and, in some cases, slightly more space .

And this is where the low-cost carriers come in, and where things get more complex.

Southwest and JetBlue have perfected the art of point-to-point routing, with largely nonstop routes that crisscross the country all day long. Both make use of hubs or “focus cities,” but not to the same degree as traditional hub-and-spoke carriers. More importantly, Southwest pioneered, and others have adopted, the art of the fast turnaround. This allows aircraft to refuel and reboard quickly and continue to another destination. The result is an abundance of nonstop and direct routes (where you don’t have to change planes) and a streamlined operation that keeps costs down for the carrier. The end result is that low-cost carriers often sell nonstop routes for the same price as connecting flights, if not less.

By contrast, hub-and-spoke routes have become cumbersome during the ongoing travel slump, especially with the competition from low-cost carriers. Southwest, in particular, has succeeded in connecting smaller cities that were typically routed through a hub—and offering lower prices on better itineraries. So for hub-and-spoke carriers, the system designed to consolidate traffic has turned into a liability because the low-cost carriers can offer a better product, leaving the hub-and-spokes with a lot of dead weight on their route networks. And since changing a route network isn’t something airlines can do overnight, the old pricing scheme remains.

Got a travel question you need answered? Send me your most vexing inquiries and I’ll do my best to make sense of it. Please leave a comment below or submit your question via email.

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