Andy Larsen: Are you spending more to fly out of Salt Lake than other airports in the west?

Here’s how much more expensive airfares are from SLC compared to our neighbors.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

Are you spending more to fly out of Salt Lake City than you would in the rest of the West?

Our international airport’s position in the middle of the western United States means relatively short flights to a number of cities in any direction. That geographical providence also has made it a great choice of hub for Delta Air Lines. Delta’s flights flew 57% of the passengers at SLC last year, a much higher percentage of one airport’s traffic than most western airports.

To calculate the results here, I relied on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s quarterly data, analyzing the airfares at the top 1,000 city pairs in the nation. The most recent data comes from the third quarter of 2023.

I compiled a list of the nearby major airports I wanted to compare Salt Lake City with: Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. (In the federal data, Oakland’s airport is included in the San Francisco data; all five L.A.-area airports are included with LAX.) I originally had Albuquerque, Boise, and Sacramento on my list, but those airports had too few appearances in the top 1,000 list to adequately compare them to the bigger airports.

Then, to create an index so I could compare apples to apples, I looked at every city that was flown to from all nine airports above with data in the top 1,000 pairs list. Those 20 cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boise, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Spokane, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington D.C.

Let’s see what we found.

Average airfare comparison

We’ll start simple. I compiled the average one-way airfare from our comparison list to our 20 index cities, then averaged those fares. This average airfare includes all types of airfare, including first class and comfort-plus arrangements. The average also includes flights with layovers. However, it does not include baggage fees or other optional fees.

Turns out that Salt Lake City has some pretty expensive airfare! On average, people spend $318 on a one-way flight out of SLC, compared to $218 from Denver or $238 from Las Vegas.

Now, Denver’s flights are, in part, cheaper because of closer proximity to more of our 20 index cities. The average flight from Denver in our index is 1,128 miles, while from Salt Lake City, it’s 1,479 miles. Airlines obviously have to spend less fuel and pay flight attendants less on shorter flights.

But flying out of every other comparison city of our list of nine actually means longer flights to the index cities — and lower prices to boot — when compared to SLC. It appears that Delta’s majority position from Salt Lake City’s airport is bumping up prices.

Low-cost averages

But I wanted to make sure. The data from the USDOT also includes the lowest-fare airline in each city pair, and what they typically charge compared to the average. In Salt Lake City’s case, the lowest fare average usually comes from competing flights to Delta’s, from airlines like Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, or Alaska.

These lower-cost flights — including many airlines that don’t offer a first-class cabin or fares to match — still see Salt Lake City’s flights as among the highest airfares in the region. But they’re no longer the absolute highest; that title belongs to Seattle. Flights to and from Las Vegas and Denver remain cheap by comparison.

Seasonal differences

One thing I noticed while looking at the data: the pattern of SLC’s airfares over time was different than the other cities. Let me show you what I mean:

Most cities saw their highest prices in the second quarter of 2023, but for Salt Lake City, the highest prices came from January to March. That makes sense in a supply-and-demand economy — people want to fly to Utah during the winter to ski our slopes.

No matter the season, Salt Lake City airfares were above average when compared to the other cities.

Cheapest flights from SLC

So, that’s the bad news. But I figured I’d still help out somehow, showing you the full list of airfares from cheapest to most expensive in 2023 from Salt Lake City. Perhaps this can help you decide where to take your next frugal vacation.

Las Vegas and Denver are the cheapest destinations. But you can also find cheap flights to Cincinnati, Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis — so long as you don’t fly Delta. All four cities are Delta hubs, but when other airlines fly to those cities (sometimes on a seasonal basis), you’ll get a much better deal.

Other than that, flights to New Orleans, Nashville, Washington D.C., Charlotte, and Philadelphia are the most expensive domestic destinations in the USDOT’s top 1,000 list in 2023.

I’ll admit — comparing flight prices across airlines has hurt my frequent flyer status with Delta. I miss the feeling of superiority that came with my name in gold.

But for a heavier wallet? I’ll take the trade-off.

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