Why is it cheaper to travel long distances than to fly between Guam and Saipan?
United has no clear answer that can appease protesting island residents
By Bryan Manabat and Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Passengers traveling between Honolulu and Los Angeles— with an air travel distance of 2,558 miles and travel time of five hours and 25 minutes— pay a minimum roundtrip airfare of $357.
Local residents traveling between Saipan and Guam— which are located 136 miles from each other— fork out between $580 and $600.
"There is no way a 30-minute flight should cost anyone $600 in today's world,” said Glen Hunter, a Saipan businessman.
On certain days, a flight search for a roundtrip ticket between the two islands returns entries showing prices that range from $1,445 to $2,434.
Don’t even think about flying from Guam to Honolulu. It can cost you an arm and leg. The latest flight search returned entries for $3,844 roundtrip.
Hunter said he had spoken to CNMI officials and shared his concerns. "I've asked them if they can directly contact higher-ups at United. Truthfully, feel this has to be an error," he said.
"There is truly no legitimate reason why a 30-minute roundtrip flight from Saipan to Guam would cost $600. A similar jet service from Saipan to South Korea costs $240 roundtrip. United is simply overpricing and it's not clear why,” Hunter added.
When reached for comment, United’s corporate communications office explained that fares generally vary depending on such factors as travel demand, travel dates and seasonality among others.
“United offers Guam and Northern Mariana Islands resident fares, these fares can be accessed by updating your location on United’s website (united.com) to Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands, or by visiting your local travel agency or the Guam United City Ticket Office. We continue to try to offer a variety of fares to meet the demand of our customers,” United said.
“Their response to media inquiries just adds insult to injury. The tech browser hack that reduces it to $400 is ridiculous, too,” Hunter said. “The discount isn't for [CNMI] residents. It is for anyone savvy enough to know to change their browser settings. That makes no sense at all and just massively screws anyone who isn't in the know.”
Hawaii Sen. Glenn Wakai noted that while a 30-minute flight from Guam to Saipan costs $580, an inter-island flight in Hawaii costs around $80.
“This has been going on for decades,” he said. "How in the world can a half-hour flight from Guam to the CNMI be that expensive? And I would imagine that if you are coming from Saipan to Hawaii, it must be neighboring $2,000 to travel.”
Wakai attributed the high travel cost to United’s monopoly. “They can charge whatever they please. I continue to tell those who listen in Micronesia, you have to increase the opportunity for competition,” he said.
Wakai proposed to bundle all government-funded travels within the CNMI and Micronesia, packaging it as a request for proposal and sending it to major air carriers.
Hunter also noted the “absurdity” of United's pricing model when compared to rates for other routes, such as Saipan-Narita and Guam-Narita.
"United uses the exact same 737-800 jet for both routes. The trip from Saipan to Narita is 30 minutes shorter than the trip from Guam to Narita. The trip from Saipan to Narita costs nearly $1,000. The trip from Guam to Narita costs half that at $540," Hunter said.
"They can try and say ‘it's supply and demand’ or ‘seasonality,’ but that is complete nonsense,” he said. "Pricing in this region always has stayed pretty consistent. As for demand, of course, it's going to be less from Japan to Saipan versus Japan to Guam considering the double price for the fare.”
Hunter said United can’t blame the fuel cost either.
“Over a year ago, fuel prices were super sky high and the price for a round trip between Guam and Saipan was $230," he said. "I think if our leaders opened up dialogue with their higher-ups and explained the situation, there is a good chance something would be done."
Earlier this month, United launched a special 55th-anniversary fare sale on its direct routes to Japan from Guam and Saipan.
The special fare offers basic economy tickets beginning at $455 to commemorate United’s 55 years of service in Guam and Micronesia, which United is celebrating now through 2024.
“As we celebrate United’s 55th anniversary in Guam and Micronesia, United is saying thank you to its customers, friends, and family in the region for choosing United,” said Sam Shinohara, United's managing director of Airport Operations, Asia-Pacific. “As the proud hometown carrier in the region, we enjoy our important job of connecting our customers to the world.”
The anniversary fare is available for travel between March 10 and May 31.
“As the cherry blossoms begin to bloom and the temperatures start to warm up, this is one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit Japan," Shinohara said.
But for non-leisure travelers, flying to a neighboring island is a luxury.
Lee Taitano, a former member of the CNMI Public School System Board, said there were occasions when she had to delay her trips for family visits or medical appointments due to limited funds.
She said United must not be allowed to practice discriminatory fare prices. "The CNMI will be deeply affected. Just think of the effect it will have on medical emergencies/referrals," Taitano added. “This price gouging on our local fares is hurting me personally and I'm sure many others."
Taitano said she was shocked when “United blatantly blocked Philippine Airline's intention to do business in our area."
Philippine Airlines earlier said its plan to codeshare partnership with American Airlines to ramp up service to Guam and boost its presence in the United States remains on hold due to United’s pending protest.
“That affects us as well,” Taitano said. “It’s some federal rule that U.S air carriers have priority over foreign-based carriers.”
Saipan resident Ignacio Dela Cruz said he has been reluctant to travel due to the high cost of flying.
"As much as I want to fly somewhere, whether it be Guam or further out, I don’t want to spend half of my body, not just my arm and leg, for my airfare alone," said Dela Cruz, a speech therapist.
There are only three air carriers that provide inter-island travel to Tinian, Rota and Guam: United Airlines, Marianas Southern Airways and Star Marianas Air.