Flying used to feel glamorous. Now, with fewer airlines, packed planes, flight delays, higher ticket prices and more rules and restrictions, it is a grind.
Nowhere are air travel’s troubles more apparent than at small airports. Airline mergers, higher fuel costs and other factors have led to fare increases and flight decreases. Small airports have been hit hardest.
From 2007 to 2012, when the 29 largest U.S. airports lost nearly 9 percent of flights, smaller U.S. airports lost 21.3 percent, according to a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology International Center for Air Transportation. Of the 15 airports with the highest average fares for 2013 according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 11 were airports in smaller markets.
However, not all small airports have lost air service.
In Oklahoma City, the number of daily flights has held steady, even as nonstop service has shifted. In the past five years, Will Rogers World Airport has lost service to Memphis, Kansas City and Cleveland but gained service to San Francisco, Chicago Midway, Atlanta, Orlando Sanford and Charlotte, North Carolina (beginning in July). With the addition of Charlotte, the city will have nonstop flights to 21 cities.
In Charleston, South Carolina, the number of boarding passengers has steadily increased, from just under 1.1 million in 2009 to just over 1.4 million in 2013. The additions of Southwest Airlines in 2011 and JetBlue in 2013 played no small role, bringing new service to the city and causing existing carriers to add service as well.
“It has been a rising tide,” said Gary Edwards, airport consultant for the Greater Charleston Area CVB and Charleston International Airport. “Each carrier brings more passengers to the market today than they did five years ago.”
Seven years ago, city leaders, including those from the CVB, began working as a team with the airport’s management to attract and keep airlines. The city does its homework through research, and it presents data to airlines as it pursues air service that makes sense for both the airline and Charleston.
“We want to make sure service is sustainable,” Edwards said. “We don’t want service for one year. We want lifelong service.”
A pivotal part of its data was the amount of meeting and convention business that was being lost because of lack of air service. Edwards said that lost meeting business is typically not part of airlines’ own market research.
“When we first started talking to Southwest Airlines five to six years ago, we began tracking lost meeting business,” Edwards said.
Some smaller cities that have lost air service are compensating by offering financial incentives for meetings and conventions.
In Sacramento, California, for example, the CVB has provided funding to either offset or cover the costs of shuttles, parking, convention center charges and other expenses, according to Mike Testa, senior vice president of convention sales and business development.
“Historically, we’ve also been able to craft some excellent relationships with airlines to provide airline tickets to some of our customers,” he said. “If the piece of business was the right fit for Sacramento, we’d consider covering the cost of air transportation for a group’s board of directors or executive team.” Each convention is considered on a case-by-case basis, he said.
In Albany, New York, the city looks forward to next year, when JetBlue will arrive. Because of airline mergers, Albany’s airport has seen daily departures drop from 71 to 54 in the last four years.
“The key to increasing airport enplanements is maintaining low airfares through strong competition,” said Doug Myers, the airport’s public affairs director. “When Southwest Airlines arrived in 2000, the average ticket price at Albany fell approximately $80. We look forward to a new round of competition with the arrival of JetBlue.”