In trend reversal, traffic at midsized airports growing

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Myrtle Beach International Airport had seat growth of 53% between April 2017 and April 2018.
Myrtle Beach International Airport had seat growth of 53% between April 2017 and April 2018.

Midsize U.S. airports are now growing at a faster rate than their larger rivals, a reversal from just a few years ago.

Meanwhile, small U.S. airports are also seeing overall growth in their outbound seat capacity, though advocates warn that such a stat belies the fact that regional airlines and the smallest commercial airports in the United States continue to be imperiled by the growing pilot shortage.

According to an analysis by FlightGlobal, a leading aviation data and analytics company, the 50 largest U.S. airports are expected to grow 3.8% year-over-year in the first half of 2018, as measured by the number of seats offered on departing flights. That compares with departing seat capacity growth of 6.8% among the next 50 largest U.S. airports and growth of 5.2% for airports ranked 101st to 200th in size.

Those figures represent a reversal from just three years ago.

Back in 2015, the largest U.S. airports grew 4.4% year-over-year, while growth at the next largest 50 airports was just 0.5%. Airports ranked 101st to 200th in size saw their seat capacity shrink by 0.6%. Meanwhile, U.S. airports outside the top 200 in departing seat counts are growing 2.5% during the first half of this year, up from just 0.5% growth last year. Small airports saw their seat capacity shrink by an aggregated 1.4% in 2015.

Seth Kaplan, managing editor of the newsletter Airline Weekly, which recently took an in-depth look at this issue, said that the renewed growth at midsize U.S. airports can be attributed to a few key factors.

One is the expansion of ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs), most notably Allegiant, which seeks out routes connecting underserviced, midsize markets.

A second factor is that United and American are making concerted efforts to increase their regional flying. United, for example, rattled U.S. airline investors in January when it announced that it planned to grow capacity 4% to 6% for each of the next three years with an emphasis on beefing up regional connectivity to midcontinent hubs in Chicago, Denver and Houston.

"Anywhere from Chicago, where American had flights and not United, United added flights," Kaplan said, citing as an example United's resumption of service to Champagne-Urbana, Ill. last June.

Kaplan said that what is driving the legacy airlines' desire to grow in regional markets have been the larger ULCCs, Frontier and Spirit, which have introduced more competition on routes between major airports, thereby reducing profits on such services.

An Airline Weekly analysis of data from the analytics company Diio Mi revealed that among the top 100 largest U.S. airports, the fastest growers by percentage are overwhelmingly coming from midsize markets. Of the top five, for example, only fourth-ranked Cincinnati is among the 50 most trafficked U.S. airports, and just barely. The other four are Myrtle Beach, S.C., which saw a seat growth of 53% between April 2017 and this past April; Islip Airport on New York's Long Island; Providence, R.I.; and Spokane, Wash.

Various airlines have driven growth at those airports, though all but Spokane have benefited from substantial ULCC growth. For example, Frontier has gone from having no presence at Islip to being its second-largest carrier by seat numbers over the past two years, while also flying the most Islip routes. At Myrtle Beach, Spirit is the leading carrier, and Allegiant is growing steadily, having added five routes since May 2017. Frontier is also adding routes, as is Myrtle Beach's main hub carrier, American.

"It's like a frenzy," said Kent Myers, whose Colorado-based Airplanners assists Myrtle Beach in recruiting air service.

Max Barrus, senior manager of planning for Allegiant, said Myrtle Beach fits neatly into the carrier's business model of delivering service between leisure destinations and communities with airports that tend to be between the 50th- and 200th- largest in the U.S.

"Nobody ever thought you could have low-cost service from Columbus to a place like Myrtle Beach," Barrus said. "But people don't necessarily want to do that 10-hour drive if they can throw their family on the plane for a couple hundred dollars.

Allegiant has also targeted Destin Airport in the Florida Panhandle, from which it will fly 16 routes this summer after entering the airport in 2016.

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