Cleveland travelers paying a premium for hub status; where to get the lowest airfare

5 On Your Side investigation analyzes CLE fares

CLEVELAND - It's sticker shock at the pump, at the grocery store and at the airport. Flying out of town is becoming a luxury, as ticket prices skyrocket.

In this difficult economy where every penny counts, a 5 On Your Side investigation found Cleveland Hopkins International Airport travelers are paying a premium to fly.

"With the price of gas and what you want to do at your final destination $100 makes a whole lot of difference," traveler Sue Stantial said.

Stantial is always looking for the best deal. She not only compares airlines, but also airports. For most trips, she ends up at an airport other than Hopkins.

It's a trend for many travelers.

Sean Sanford and his three children live in the Canton area, but they're not flying out of Akron.

"Someone told me I could come out here cheaper and that's what ended up happening," Sanford explained.

Sanford was headed to Florida and flew out of an airport he'd never been to before. He saved $600.

It was a new experience for Lorain resident, Elsie Kral, too. She lives just 20 miles from Cleveland Hopkins Airport, but drove across the state line 120 miles to Pittsburgh's airport for her trip to Vermont. She saved $300. Kral said it was worth it even with her time, gas and tolls.

"If they can't give us what we want or cheaper then we have to go someplace else," Kral explained.

Hopkins put to the test
A 5 On Your Side investigation found if you're willing to drive someplace other than Hopkins, your savings can add up.

We put Cleveland in a head-to-head matchup with Pittsburgh, Detroit and Akron / Canton airports.

We looked at flights in June, July, and August to 11 different cities including Boston, Bozeman, Charlotte, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia, Miami, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Tampa.

We used two different search engines, and looked at Southwest flights separately -- since they are not aggregated.

In the matchup with Pittsburgh, Cleveland offered a cheaper fare only three times. Pittsburgh's flights were cheaper 30 times.

Here's a look at the average savings out of Pittsburgh:
Milwaukee - $219
Boston - $216
New York LaGuardia - $156
Charlotte - $148
Las Vegas - $124

[ WEB EXTRA: Scroll down for an airport-by-airport comparison (sorry, not available on our mobile site & apps )]

The trip to Vegas in August may be cheaper out of Pittsburgh, but it connects in Cleveland.

"It's crazy isn't it?" Kral remarked.

Kral isn't going to Vegas, but a connection in Cleveland saved the Northeast Ohio woman money too. To save $300, Kral drove from Lorain to Pittsburgh. Then, she flew to Cleveland and then to Vermont.

"It doesn't make any sense at all," Kral said.

The savings also added up in Akron. Cleveland was cheaper 7 times, and Akron offered cheaper routes 26 times. Akron told 5 On Your Side passenger traffic has doubled since 2000 mainly due to low fare competition and new routes added by Air Tran Airways.

Akron also boasts that US Department of Transportation data shows Akron has the lowest average fare in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Kentucky combined.

Pittsburgh says losing the hub brought ticket prices down
It all comes down to dollars and cents, and if you can save hundreds of dollars it may make sense to drive. Pittsburgh is seeing an increase in people driving across the state line. On average, one in six cars in the Pittsburgh parking lot have Ohio plates. A quick walk through the parking lot quickly reveals signs of Northeast Ohio.

"Right now what we're seeing is a very large increase in the number of Ohio parkers," Parking Manager Dave Paga explained.

It's traffic Pittsburgh needs. They've seen a big decrease in traffic since losing their status as a U.S. Airways hub. Fewer travelers walk through the terminal building, because it's not common to connect in Pittsburgh anymore. Now, Pittsburgh relies on foot traffic through the front door to keep passenger loads up.

A big drawback to losing a hub is the loss of nonstop flights and flights in general.

Paga said there is an upside, though, for leisure travelers. Ticket prices are down thanks to discount airlines that have moved into the airport.

"It's actually going to benefit the people who are Cleveland based. When the low cost carriers come in the price of tickets go down," Paga said.

Pittsburgh told us they used to have the same problem as Cleveland.

"Awhile back when we had our hub we had people from here driving over to Cleveland when Southwest first entered the market in Cleveland. In fact, our Mayor at the time, Tom Murphy, would drive to Cleveland to fly rather than fly out of Pittsburgh because it was cheaper," Paga explained.

Pittsburgh is now looking to expand its market, and it has its eye on Northeast Ohio.

It comes at a time when every passenger counts at Cleveland's hub airport.

Cleveland tries to sell its "hub" status
"In the current economy we want United to know there is enough demand in Cleveland to effectively support and run a profitable hub here," Todd Payne, Hopkins Chief of Marketing and Air Service Development said.

The hub is a billion dollar engine for Northeast Ohio, and Hopkins feels it offers business and leisure travelers something the other airports can't offer. Their message focuses on the airport experience, not the cost of the fare.

"I think we offer the best mix of value, frequency and markets," Payne said. "Most people I think are open to paying more premium for that."

Cleveland has non-stop flights to 74 markets, Pittsburgh to 37 cities, and Akron to 13 airports.

Cleveland also pointed out it has 250 flights a day versus 166 in Pittsburgh.

"We can say we have more low fares and more markets and flights and more frequency," Payne said.

Hopkins versus another hub airport
Hopkins didn't fare well in our analysis or that of The New York Times. In an analysis of different data, The New York Times found Cleveland was the fifth most overpriced airline with an average markup of $55.

In our head to head comparison with three other airports, Cleveland was never the winner. We analyzed 132 flights in a three month period. Payne felt our analysis didn't create a level playing field.

"It's not an apples-to-apples approach," Payne explained.

But the approach we took is the one most consumers take -- comparing prices online.

"You'll find our airfares as a hub airport are extremely competitive," Payne said.

Even in our analysis of two hubs, a more apples to apples approach, Cleveland still offered fewer lower fares than Detroit.

In a matchup between Cleveland and Detroit this summer, Cleveland offered the lower fare 11 times. Detroit offered the lower fare 21 times.

What we would ask the public to do is not just look at the bottom line price or average fare," Payne said.

The city feels the entire airport experience makes a difference.

For Cleveland traveler, Earl Martin, "It's really a matter of convenience and time."

Vacation time is at a premium for Martin, and the unpredictable whether often land him at Cleveland. However, Martin has looked at Akron / Canton and even Cincinnati.

We asked Martin, "What about traveling to Pittsburgh?"

Martin said, "No, we're Browns fans."

All kidding aside, Cleveland is banking on loyalty.

"Be somewhat open to paying a little more to support the hub," Payne said.

For Buckeye fan, Tom Stantial, price matters most.

"Bottom line, it's always money. Always money," Stantial explained.

While Hopkins doesn't control the price of airfares, it is in a unique situation. It can bring price up during hub negotiations.

The airport is also focusing on non-airline revenue by building a hotel and improving the airmall. If the city can boost the non-airline revenue it will lower costs for the airlines and make it easier for them to offer lower fares.

Finding deals
It's not as easy as it once was to find deals. Aggregation sites are good, but you still need to check the individual airline's site. Some airlines are in disputes with some of the aggregation sites, and their fares won't show up. Other airlines, like Southwest, have never been a part of these third party sites. Search in multiple places, and be flexible with your travel dates and maybe even your departing airport.


Flight Cost Comparisons
Check out the cost differences of flying out of Cleveland or Arkon/Canton versus other nearby cities.
  Departing: Cleveland Departing: Akr/Ctn Departing: Pittsburgh Departing: Detroit Flight Type
Arrive: BOSTON $355 $259 [ $149 ] $411 Non-stop
Arrive: BOZEMAN $653 [ $426 ] $587 $497 1 Stop
Arrive: CHARLESTON,SC $446 [ $298 ] [ $298 ] $550 Non-stop
Arrive: HOUSTON [ $238 ] $299 $379 $404 1 Stop
Arrive: LAS VEGAS $496 $431 $334 [ $328 ] 1 Stop
Arrive: LAS VEGAS $438 N/A [ $320 ] $369 Non-stop
Arrive: LOS ANGELES $448 $398 $411 [ $300 ] 1 Stop
Arrive: LOS ANGELES $469 N/A [ $405 ] N/A Non-stop
Arrive: NYC - LGA $359 $255 [ $199 ] $267 Non-stop
Arrive: MIAMI $327 $397 [ $198 ] $286 1 Stop
Arrive: MIAMI $491 N/A N/A [ $279 ] Non-stop
Arrive: MILWAULKEE $444 $258 [ $218 ] $268 Non-stop
Arrive: SAN FRANCISCO $488 [ $381 ] $416 $421 1 Stop
Arrive: SAN FRANCISCO $519 N/A [ $405 ] N/A Non-stop
Arrive: TAMPA $295 [ $269 ] N/A N/A Non-stop
Arrive: TAMPA $268 $291 [ $232 ] $239 1 Stop

Data comparison is for July 14-18, 2011 (Thursday-Monday)
Compiled using Kayak search engine &
Search conducted March 31, 2011.
Lowest price for each flight denoted in brackets [ ] & green color, most expensive is in red.



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