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Can’t miss data for travel-minded business reporters

Airport traveler

By Flickr user Victor Bayon

I love travel-related business stories — reading them and writing them. I just wish I would have started searching for local business stories in national transportation statistics earlier.

The latest data on domestic airfares from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics offers a great opportunity for business reporters to find local consumer stories.

Nationally, airfares rose 10 percent in the last quarter of 2011, bringing the average price to $368. But in Cincinnati the average price for a plane ticket was up to $502. Cincinnati, the country’s most expensive place to fly in or out of, is usually pretty pricey this time of year. Ten years ago, a flight to or from Cincinnati cost an average of $466.

Atlantic City, meanwhile, isn’t so pricey. The city had the fourth quarter’s lowest airfares at a rock bottom $189. That’s cheaper than the $227 average fares it had during the same quarter more than a decade ago.

Fares in Indianapolis rose twice as quickly as the national average while fares to and from Chicago’s Midway Airport climbed by just half the national average. On an annual basis, airfares rose the most in Fort Myers, Fla. — more than 26 percent. They fell the most in Charleston, S.C. at about 8 percent.

The Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones Newswires covered the national numbers. Publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nashville Post, The Huntsville Times and the Memphis Business Journal revealed how their area fliers fared.

But few publications dug deeper than the bureau’s press release to explain what was happening behind the numbers. As a reader, I was left with multiple questions. Were price declines in South Carolina drawing more people to Charleston? Did  low-priced flights help Atlantic City hotels and casinos? How much are rising airfares actually keeping people from moving about the country?

James Pilcher, who for years covered aviation for the Cincinnati Enquirer, routinely used the bureau’s data as a source of inspiration for larger enterprise projects. He suggests reporters look for patterns in the data and use their findings to explore how airfare changes over time are affecting both readers’ pocketbooks and their lifestyles.

In 2003, Pilcher wrote an article for the Cincinnati daily on how the city’s airport was able to remain a major hub even though 25 percent of local travelers were choosing to drive to other nearby airports to trim their travel costs.

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower. Airfares at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports rose at half the pace of the national average in the last quarter of 2011.

“It really started with paying attention to the patterns in the airfare data,” he said.

One thing to keep in mind about the government’s data is that it doesn’t include fares to Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, which are typically higher than flights within the continental U.S. It also doesn’t include the fees airlines charge for bags, printed boarding passes and the other items that once were built into fares.

Fee information is publicly available. And when combined with the BTS data, it can help readers better understand what’s happening to their travel budgets.

Telling that story well is just one way business reporters can increase their value to the millions of readers who take off from U.S. airports each year.

About the Author

Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She worked as a staff reporter for several U.S. newspapers. During the Great Recession, she covered the Treasury, Federal Reserve and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a master’s in media strategy and leadership at Northwestern University. She's online at www.meenamedia.com and on twitter at @Meena_Thiru.

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