Airline Cuts Hurting Small Airports

Airlines have cut flights and replaced big planes with ones that have fewer seats on routes serving small and midsize cities.


Waiting on a flight home, Boris Sherman thought back to when he flew out of Toledo Express Airport eight years ago.

'The last time I was here it was a lot busier,' said Sherman, a salesman from Providence, R.I. 'All the airlines were flying from here. It's totally empty today.'

It's not just Toledo.

Airlines trying to save money and return to profitability have cut flights and replaced big planes with ones that have fewer seats on routes serving small and midsize cities.

That's led to higher fares, fewer flight options or longer drives to hub airports for travelers and a reversal of fortunes for regional airports that until this year were seeing a surge in passengers.

'The demand is still there. It's just that our folks are having to go elsewhere to fly,' said Phillip Johnson, deputy director of Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Passenger numbers are down: 6 percent in Grand Rapids; 15 percent to 20 percent at airports in Mississippi; and 16 percent in Toledo. Takeoffs are down: by about one-third over the last two years to 21 departures a day at Toledo Express, where four of the five airlines had cut service this year.

'We've had frequent schedule changes this year as airlines try to adjust capacity,' said Terry Anderson, executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi. 'Passengers can't rely on a schedule that's in concrete.'

Two of the biggest carriers that fly out of Grand Rapids -- Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. -- are operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and are using smaller planes even though many are full.

'Bankruptcy forces an airline to do things they may not want to do,' Johnson said. 'They have no choice in doing it to restructure the company.'

U.S. airlines also are putting most of their new seats in routes to Europe, Latin America and Asia while shrinking some domestic routes, hoping it will allow them to raise fares to cover soaring fuel costs. Delta cut its July domestic capacity by 13 percent while Northwest reported a 12 percent drop.

Aviation consultant Robert Mann said fuel costs have made a lot of routes no longer profitable, and carriers in restructuring are dropping those flights.

'Their first goal is to get rid of the losers,' Mann said. 'Some of this will be permanent. Some of it is strictly related to restructuring.'

Some airport directors say higher gasoline prices and less disposable income contributed to the decline of passengers.

Fewer flights in and out of small airports have cut into sales at restaurants and souvenir shops, parking revenue and landing fees that airports collect from airlines.

A food court added in Toledo five years ago will likely lose money this year, said airport director Paul Toth. 'This year it's going to cost us $25,000 to keep the concessions open,' he said.

At Manchester Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, landing fees dropped $204,000 during the budget year that ended in June.

There also are more headaches for travelers when a connecting flight is late or weather delays their departure.

Louis Balsamo, who lives in Sonora, Mexico, had to spend an unplanned night in Chicago in mid-August because his flight arrived there late and there were no more connecting flights leaving for Toledo. 'We were stranded,' he said.

Passenger numbers had been up at many regional airports, partly because they are often more convenient than the bigger, more congested hub airports such as Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Passengers can park, get their tickets and go through security in less than 15 minutes at Fort Wayne (Ind.) International Airport, said spokeswoman Kristi Holmes. 'I challenge them to do that at O'Hare,' she said.

But this year more people are opting to fly out of Chicago or Indianapolis, where fares were an average $126 according to the most recent statistics, instead of Fort Wayne, which on average was $50 more for a flight in 2005, she said.

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