Five airlines now serve 85% of the market in the U.S., compared with 2000… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
If you're having a hard time finding short-haul flights to small and medium-size cities, it's not your imagination.
A new study by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that the elimination of thousands of flights of less than 500 miles is one result of the airline industry's efforts to prosper in the face of higher fuel costs and economic turbulence in the last few years.
Another strategy airlines have used to rebound from the dismal financial times that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession: Packing more passengers in bigger planes so that the chances of stretching out to an adjacent empty seat are almost nil.
The good news is that airlines have seen profits grow in the last few years, the report said. It noted that the nation's largest airlines earned about $5 billion in profits in 2011, compared with 2002 when the industry lost a combined total of $9.2 billion. In addition, the airlines have improved on-time performance and cut the number of canceled flights.
But the bad news for passengers is that five airlines now serve 85% of the market in the U.S., compared with 2000 when 10 airlines served more than 90% of the market. In addition, airlines have eliminated thousands of flights, especially short-haul flights using smaller planes.
Of the 457 airports in the country, 61 have lost half or more of the carriers serving their communities over the last five years. Meanwhile, the number of flights of less than 500 miles have been cut by 3,000 a day in that same period, according to the report.
The hardest hit cities have been Cincinnati, with a 63% cut in scheduled flights; Pittsburgh, with 40% fewer flights; and Memphis, with 35.5% fewer flights, according to the report.
"The industry's strategies of consolidating airlines, cutting flights and raising fares have produced positive financial results," the report concluded.
A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation's airlines, said the industry has cut many domestic flights and reduced seating but only to better match demand.
Book U.S. flights 21 days ahead for best deal
Looking to save money on a flight? Your best bet is to book your flights 21 days before departure, according to a new study by the travel booking website Kayak.
Over a six-month period before departure, the average fare for a domestic flight is $370, according to a study of millions of flights booked by Kayak users. But that fare drops to its lowest level — $342 — when booked 21 days before departure, according to Kayak.
For international flights, the lowest fare can be booked 34 days before departure, when the average price is $977, compared with $1,016 for the six-month period before takeoff, the study said.
Other tips: If you're taking a quick domestic trip, you can save as much as 16% on an airfare by departing on a Saturday and returning Monday. For trips more a week long, you can save as much as 10% by leaving on a Tuesday and returning on a Wednesday.
For quick international flights, you can save 21% if you leave on a Tuesday and return the following Wednesday. For international trips longer than a week, you can save 9% if you leave on a Saturday and return on a Sunday.
CheapAir offers new way to search flights
If you think booking a flight online is too complex, CheapAir.com says it may have the solution for you.
The travel website last week unveiled a search feature that lets you type in your travel needs in a simple statement, instead of punching in destination, dates and times in several fields.
For example, people who use the feature, called Easy Search, can type in a sentence such as "L.A. to Newark on July 3, returning on the 10th." The software at the travel site will decipher the airport codes and calendar dates and display the flights that best fit your needs, according to CheapAir.
"Easy Search is one more thing we're doing differently than the competition to make it easier to book travel arrangements," said Jeff Klee, chief executive of CheapAir.
Still, there may be one easier way to book travel: Call a travel agent.