United’s arrival in Columbia brings competition, anticipated price drops

Travelers flying from Columbia Regional Airport can expect to see lower prices on tickets to Chicago as new United Airlines flights compete with existing American Airlines options, industry experts said.

United started serving the airport this week, offering two daily flights to and from Chicago O’Hare International Airport and a daily flight to and from Denver International Airport.

The flight to Chicago is up against an existing flight offered by American. That competition, experts said, should drive down prices for ticket buyers.

“Whenever you have one carrier in the market, fares are almost twice as much as when a second carrier comes in,” said Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Incorporated, a firm that advises federal aviation policy.

Golaszewski said there are rarely exceptions to those fare decreases, except in very small markets, such as Columbia. Even then, he said, exceptions only tend to occur if departure times are spread out by many hours.

One-way flights from Columbia to Chicago between April 2016 and March 2017 cost an average of $201, said Seth Kaplan, a managing partner at Airline Weekly, citing data compiled by Diio, an airline industry intelligence company.

Not enough fare data has accrued since United started serving Columbia to make conclusive comparisons, but Google Flights lists one-way tickets from Columbia to Chicago during the first week of September ranging from $175 to $235, with American offering most of the cheaper flights.

Carriers in competition

Kaplan said United breaking into the Columbia market aligns with its national strategy of not ceding any ground to its major competitors, Delta and American.

Additional flights are not likely to come anytime soon, he said, as the airport wouldn’t want to cause too much competition and scare existing carriers away.

Greg Cecil, a member of Columbia Regional’s advisory board, said that the competition between American and United on the Chicago route is a positive development that “offers some more options for folks.”

Cecil added that there were no immediate plans to add more flights or carriers to Columbia Regional’s roster, but that the airport was interested in linking with Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Our passenger demand analysis points to Charlotte,” he said, “and that’s a major hub for American.”

Keeping substitutes at bay

Part of the pitch that Columbia Regional makes to mid-Missouri travelers is that flying from Columbia is more convenient than driving to airports in the state’s larger cities.

“Those folks can book a flight and come right into Columbia,” Cecil said. “They don’t have to drive two hours or take a shuttle from St. Louis or Kansas City.”

For now, Kaplan said, Columbia’s airport is in a solid position relative to Kansas City International Airport and St. Louis-Lambert International Airport.

“It’s good that they are two hours away, and not 45 minutes,” he said.

Kaplan said that if smaller airports like Columbia can keep their prices within around $100 of the competition, they can remain an attractive option.

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