I really want to go on vacation.
After a rocking jazz season and a few years of writing data columns, I’d like to take a week off somewhere. But I’m on a journalist’s salary, which means I’ll be budget conscious on my trip. Where can I travel to – and what fare should I book – to get the best bang for my buck?
That was the question that got me searching for airfares from Salt Lake City, and of course I’m not alone. But when I explored it beyond the usual flight search tools, I came across the US Department of Transportation’s database of airfares since 1996. It’s a cool, rich dataset that tells some interesting stories.
First of all, feel free to play around with the following tool. Select any city to view available data counting flights in both directions from Salt Lake City International Airport and that city. First Class and Economy Plus fares are included on average, but free passes from frequent flyer programs and the like are not.
Each data point you hover over or select with your thumb on a mobile device then displays additional information: which airline was the largest on that route in a given quarter, what was that airline’s fare, which Airline was ever the cheapest route given and how much that average cheap fare was.
You’ll also notice that some of the smaller cities have some periods where data is missing — meaning they weren’t among the top 1,000 busiest routes in the United States that quarter.
If you’re clicking around in a tool like this like I am, you’ll notice a few trends. Here are some I discovered:
General fare trends
Here is how air fare trends to and from Salt Lake City have evolved overall since 1996:
Note that these are not all flights out of Salt Lake City, only those in the top 1,000 records. But they still cover the bulk of air travel on a quarterly basis. Over the past quarter century, the average fare has increased from $142 in 1996 to $210 in 2021.
That sounds like a big increase, but remember: inflation. Something bought for $142 in 1996 would generally cost $245 today, so $210 actually reflects a significantly cheaper plane ticket than before.
You’ll find that these airfares are definitely cyclical too, especially in the 2010s. Airfares in the first quarter are more expensive than the rest of the year. Also worth noting is the large drop in airfares during the pandemic, which has since recovered. In this unusual 2022, air fares are currently up 20-30% compared to earlier in the year, according to Delta CEO Ed Bastian.
Also note a growing difference between the largest airline – that’s Delta on most routes from Salt Lake City – and the cheapest airline – which turns out to be Southwest on about half of the routes covered in the dataset. That doesn’t necessarily mean Delta is always more expensive than Southwest, but perhaps its premium options have meant the airline gets more money per ticket than Southwest’s flatter model.
Interesting (to me) differences in markets
Walking through each of these cities, I’m sometimes surprised to see where there’s significant growth — in passengers or airfare — and where not.
The number of passengers traveling to and from Las Vegas, for example, has remained relatively constant from year to year: around 1,000 passengers per day traveled this route in 2021 and 1998. Travel to and from Dallas/Fort Worth, on the other hand, has already exploded – from around 500 passengers per day to over 1,200 in recent quarters. As passenger numbers have skyrocketed, fares to and from Dallas have fallen.
Meanwhile, flights to non-hub cities have seen larger price increases than their counterparts. Airfares to Albuquerque, NM; boise; Reno, Nevada; Spokane, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona, have more than doubled over the past 25 years, beating inflation.
Different markets are also cyclical in different ways. Travel to New York City explodes in the first quarter, while travel to Seattle and Portland, Oregon peaks in the third quarter of most years. Is that just because of the distinction between business and tourism travel? I would take a winter vacation to the Pacific Northwest instead of the Northeast, but it seems like I’m alone with that.
The influence of low-cost airlines
While I don’t always know why airfares or traffic are increasing in one place or another, sometimes the reasons are obvious in the data.
Take a look at air fares to and from Salt Lake City and Denver.
In early 2006 there was a huge increase in travel between these cities – and a huge drop in fares – from an average of $156 to $91 in just a few quarters. What happened?
Well, Southwest happened. It flew into Denver Airport in late 2005. Before that, the cheapest airline, Frontier, was charging about $150 to go to Denver, and suddenly Southwest was selling tickets for $74.70. Frontier lowered its prices to compete as well, selling tickets for $83.
However, by 2011, Frontier was the cheapest airline out there, selling tickets to Salt Lake City for $101, while Southwest averaged $110. Competition between the two airlines has kept fares between the two cities cheaper than they were in the early 2000s — despite Delta being the largest airline as of 2017.
But Frontier has brought back the Southwest on the Chicago-Salt Lake City route. In 2014, Southwest charged a whopping $250 for a ride to or from Chicago. Frontier undercut it, selling tickets for an average of $116 in 2015. Southwest cut its fares by $100 to keep up — and interestingly, air travel to and from Chicago increased by 30%.
I love it when corporate wars are reflected in the data.
Maybe that makes me a nerd, but I could play with this type of data for hours and learn about the best times and the market conditions that lead to the best prices to and from my hometown. I’m also excited to see what my readers can learn by going through the data themselves.
And heck, maybe I can use these trends to plan my next vacation just right — and take my data-hunting to the beach.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@ sltrib.com.
Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/06/05/years-airfare-data-salt/ 25 years of Salt Lake City fare data – what can we learn from the ups and downs?