Smaller Airports Struggle for a Place on the Route Map
March 16, 2015
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  • TUCSON — There were so many people booked on the 8 a.m. bus trip to the Phoenix airport the other morning that the Arizona Shuttle company had to call in a bigger vehicle.

    “More people are flying from Phoenix,” a driver said as he hoisted in a heavy bag and slammed the hatch. “Better connections, better fares,” he said with a shrug.

    That’s a story you hear now about air travel in midsize and smaller cities, where many travelers in recent years have been driving for hours to find better options at bigger airports.

    The numbers tell the tale. Between 2007 and 2014, there were 15 percent fewer scheduled flights in the United States, says Boyd Group International — and most of those cuts were at nonhub airports, as airlines concentrated on the better revenue available from longer-haul flights at bigger airports.

    Still, keep in mind that, as some aviation people say, “If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport” — meaning that airports are intensely local and sometimes idiosyncratic enterprises. And as the smaller ones struggle to reverse service cutbacks or hold on to what they have, they are making efforts to persuade fickle travelers that sometimes local is better, while offering airlines incentives to add a flight or two.

    It’s a tough slog, admits Mike Daigle, the executive director of South Bend International Airport in Indiana.

    “It requires a real effort in the local community to show an airline that you can support a new flight,” Mr. Daigle said here last week at an air-service workshop conference attended by many small airport managers at a resort hotel in the desert foothills.

    South Bend has been polishing terminal amenities — there’s a bowl of free candy at the information counter — while trying to stem what is called the “leakage” of local passengers to the big airports in Chicago, 110 miles away.

    “We don’t hesitate to point out that there is a lot of traffic congestion in Chicago,” Mr. Daigle said. South Bend also recently persuaded United Airlines to start daily nonstop service to Newark — an initiative grounded in financial incentives to United and a case being made that business travelers in the South Bend region will adequately support nonstop service to connect for international trips at a major New York hub.

    Airlines have no strategic incentive to expand service at nonhub airports. They have had enormously profitable results ($7.3 billion last year) by merging, reducing routes and competition, carefully designing a commercial aviation system that depends on flying (and buying) bigger airplanes while mothballing many regional jets, and relentlessly adhering to a metric based on gaining every possible dollar from every mile flown.

    From the perspective of domestic airlines, what is not broken does not need to be fixed. And from the perspective of many travelers in midsize markets, where the flight options at local airports have decreased while fares have gone up, a couple of extra hours on the highway to a bigger airport with far more choices and lower fares makes sense.

    Smaller airports are trying to buck that tide. Tucson International Airport, for example, gently chides presumably exhausted homebound travelers from a billboard on Interstate 10 about two-thirds of the way on the 100-mile trip from Phoenix: “Almost home! Still worth it?”

    David Hatfield, the business development director at the Tucson airport, said that passenger counts edged up slightly last year for the first time since 2010. After years of effort, the airport used marketing and incentives like a waiving of airport fees to persuade Alaska Airlines to add a nonstop flight between Portland, Ore., and Tucson that proved successful last year. “And that’s frankly why we went up,” Mr. Hatfield said. “We had a flight that we didn’t have before.”

    Here and there, some small airports have been the exception, because of recent growth spurts in businesses like oil and gas drilling. Minot International Airport in Minot, N.D., is a prime example. As the oil business grew in North Dakota, so did passenger departures, called enplanements.

    “In 2009 we had 69,000 enplanements,” said the airport’s director, Andrew D. Solsvig. “In 2010 we had a record 98,000 enplanements; in 2011 there were 150,000, and then by 2012 we had 220,000 enplanements. And we’ve been about level with that for the past three years.”

    Given the demand and the sudden increase in regional disposable incomes, airlines have added many flights, at higher fares, in the Bakken oil field boomtowns in the north. Now, with the decline in worldwide oil prices, and with big energy companies planning layoffs, skies are a little cloudier for air service prospects in those towns. Still, Minot is proceeding with construction of a $40 million terminal expansion that will triple the size of the current terminal.

    Energy business uncertainties notwithstanding, northern airports in the United States like little Minot have an advantage that also involves travelers driving a long distance for better options and even better fares.

    Minot, for example, does a solid business in travelers who make the 250-mile drive from Regina, Saskatchewan — some of them lured by robust service that Allegiant, the low-fare leisure travel airline, runs out of Minot to warmer vacation destinations in the United States, Mr. Solsvig said.

    “Out slogan is, ‘More flights, fewer hassles,’” he said. “There’s lots of Canadians who will drive four hours from someplace like Regina because it’s less expensive for them, and they have better choices here.”