American pulls back at Logan International

Flights to London cut, others reduced

American Airlines is slipping away from Boston.

Logan International Airport’s biggest carrier for most of the past decade has shrunk to the fifth-largest, carrying just 11 percent of the airport’s passengers last year, down from a peak of 21 percent in 2004. The carrier now flies to just six cities nonstop from Boston, down from 33 in 2003. At the end of March, the number of American nonstop destinations out of Boston will fall even further when the carrier cuts its only remaining international flight, to London.

Even before the airline declared bankruptcy in 2011 and entered into merger talks with US Airways expected to be completed soon, American Airlines was pulling back from second-tier cities to focus on its five biggest domestic markets: Dallas-Fort Worth, where the airline is based, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

These five cities are also the only destinations American will fly to nonstop from Boston after it drops its London service. The carrier also operates seasonal service between Boston and Paris.

“The largest concentration of business and high-end travelers are located in these five gateway or hub cities,” said Tim Ahern, American’s vice president for New York and international, noting that many of the country’s Fortune 500 companies are located in these markets.

American’s vanishing act is problematic for Boston fliers because it gives them fewer options and nonstop flights. The airline has less than a third of the daily departures it had out of Logan a decade ago, when there were more than 100 a day, including flights on the carrier’s regional affiliate, American Eagle, which pulled out of Logan in late 2011.

“We hate to see any airline that has been a strong player here at Logan scale their operations down,” said Edward Freni, director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan. “Fortunately for this airport, other airlines have benefited from American’s reduction and picked up and backfilled behind them.”

The pullback from Boston reflects the airline’s struggles in recent years. American’s operating costs are higher than other major international carriers, many of which cut costs during their own bankruptcies and joined forces through mergers, and American has to make changes to stay competitive, airline analysts say.

Along with retreating to its hubs, the airline has outsourced cabin cleaning and ticket agents and negotiated new contracts that increased its pilots’ workload.

Unfortunately for American frequent fliers, however, their perks generally don’t transfer to domestic carriers picking up the slack, such as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines.

George Sprague, a retired Cambridge district court judge, is a platinum level frequent flier on American, which means along with benefits such as free upgrades and faster boarding, he can rack up miles at an accelerated rate. But this status only benefits him if American offers flights he wants to take.

“They’ve left me high and dry with no place to go,” said Sprague, 74. “I feel as if I have a big bank account and nowhere to spend it.”

Sprague can no longer fly American nonstop from Boston to his home in Fort Lauderdale or to visit his son in San Francisco. Come spring, he also won’t be able to fly American for his annual trip to London, where he serves on the board of a school, although he can use his frequent flier miles on British Airways, which has a partnership with American.

London is the most popular international route out of Logan, with three times as much traffic as any other overseas destination. British Airways will add a fourth daily flight from Logan to its schedule starting March 31, and Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic Airways also have daily nonstop service. But when American drops its 22-year-old flight between Boston and Heathrow, there will be about 300 fewer outbound seats a day in the summer.

“It makes it that much tougher to get to London,’’ said Michael Friedman, a senior analyst at Delaware Investments in Boston. “It absolutely will drive prices up, there’s no question about it, because we’re taking seats out of the market.”

American’s shrinking network also means local companies are less likely to use the airline as their preferred carrier, Friedman said, further discouraging the airline from building back up its presence here.

If American merges with US Airways, the third-biggest airline at Logan, the combined carrier would be a major presence in Boston. Ahern, the American vice president, declined to comment on what effect a merger would have on his airline. American will continue to grow in its five biggest markets, he said, but the airline has no plans to revive its glory days in Boston.