Delta decides to ground nonstop flights to Boston, Orlando from Charleston

Delta Air Lines Inc., the top commercial carrier in Charleston, is cutting its nonstop flights from here to Boston and Orlando, Fla., granting US Airways Inc. claim to the most direct destinations from the Lowcountry.

Starting in June, Delta will fly from Charleston only to Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York, scrapping 30 flights a week, or 12 percent of its local takeoffs. The Atlanta-based carrier is the only airline flying directly to Boston or Orlando.

US Airways flies direct to four locations from Charleston: Charlotte, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

"Now is a good time to exercise the flexibility of our fleet and ensure that we are flying in markets that make financial sense," Chris Kelly, Delta's general manager of communications, said Tuesday. "There are some routes that with fuel at $110 a barrel, even if every seat is full they aren't profitable."

The route-map thinning is part of a bid to skirt turbulent fuel markets. Last week, Delta announced during a Wall Street conference that it would cut domestic capacity by 10 percent this year and trim its payroll by almost 4 percent through buyouts and voluntary retirements.

The airline had planned on crude oil costing about $90 a barrel this year; current levels are more than $100 a barrel. It now expects to spend $2 billion more in 2008 than last year to gas up its fleet. As a result, Delta said, it will ground up to 45 planes, namely 50-seat "regional jets" like the ones flying from Charleston to Boston and Orlando.

Mike Boyd, principal of Boyd Group, a Colorado-based aviation consulting firm, said rocketing fuel prices are making an increasing number of commercial planes obsolete.

"This is the first time I've ever seen airlines pulling back capacity in the face of strong demand," Boyd said. "The reality is, a lot of these planes just weren't made for $110 a barrel oil."

Boyd said it is unlikely that other carriers will cherry-pick the routes Delta is abandoning.

"Charleston's always going to be tied to connecting hubs," he said. "And the bar on some of these routes has gone up and up and up."

John Powers, owner of North Charleston-based travel agency Travel Management Group, said direct flights to Orlando never made financial sense, given how close the two cities are.

Most Orlando-bound travelers are families, not business people, and many would rather drive than buy airline tickets.

Local airlines currently fly to 16 different airports.

Continental will start nonstop service from Charleston to Cleveland on April 6, a route it announced about six months ago.

Delta, meanwhile, is looking farther afield. It plans to add 12 new international destinations this year, pushing more than 40 percent of its capacity into foreign travel.