Why Is It So Expensive to Fly to Portland?

It can be frustrating trying to find any logic in the way airlines go about setting ticket prices. So today's peel back the curtain by The Wall Street Journal is welcome, because it does more to explain why a flight to Barcelona can cost less than a flight to Hartford than any other article I've ever read. What it doesn't do, however, is tell us Seattleites why it still costs so much to fly to Portland.

As the Journal notes, "airline pricing is enormously complex." But there is one factor that drives down prices more than any other: competition.

As an example, the most expensive route per mile used to be Boston-Philadelphia. Separated by less than 300 miles, fares nonetheless once averaged around $700. Now, though, Southwest has challenged USAirways route dominance, thereby cutting the average fare in half.

Portland and Seattle are separated by an even smaller distance than Boston and Philadelphia. And they're both served by a number of carriers -- no route-monopoly here -- including Southwest, Alaska, Continental and United. But the flight's cost-per-mile remains among the most expensive.


So what gives?

Rob Britton, a consultant with AirLearn who explains the complexities of the business to simpletons like me, says that it's a combination of two factors. One, the Seattle-Portland route is just too short and easily managed by car or train to be profitable for a carrier.

"By the time you drive to SeaTac, park your car and get through security you could be crossing the Columbia!" he says.

And two, because of the limited market, low-cost carriers like Southwest don't run enough flights to drive down the price. "Seattle is a strategic market. It's a hub. No one cares about the local flights because the local flights don't make enough money," says Britton.

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