LAS VEGAS -- Concern about reductions in air service to many
midsize- and small-market U.S. airports emerged as a major theme at the Routes
Americas conference here earlier this month, where delegates from 100 airlines
and 260 airports gathered to explore potential new flight offerings.
"We've got to find a way to solve that problem,"
Erik Hansen, vice president of government relations for the U.S. Travel
Association, said on a panel at the conference.
According to U.S. Travel, 60% of U.S. airports have lost
connectivity over the last decade. In addition, two-thirds of U.S. states have
seen a decline in air service quality and convenience since 2007, meaning they
are seeing fewer flights and routes.
The reductions have come as consolidation has reduced the number
of major U.S. airlines from 11 to four since 2004. As they consolidated,
airlines concentrated their operations at fewer hubs, leaving former hub cities
such as Memphis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., with empty
Meanwhile, the pilot shortage plaguing regional airlines has
combined with moves by the major airlines to phase out 30-seat aircraft and
reduce their 50-seat fleets to take an additional toll on service options at
Approximately 30 small airports in the continental U.S. lost
commercial service between the middle of 2013 and the end of 2015, according to
a list provided by the trade group American Association of Airport Executives.
In 2016, at least seven more airports lost service,
according to an analysis of data obtained by Travel Weekly from the commercial
aviation analytics company Diio Mi.
Small markets such as Huron, S.D.; Hot Springs, Ark.; and
Los Alamos, N.M.; were among the casualties.
On the same panel at Routes Americas, John Slattery, CEO of
the Brazilian regional aircraft manufacturer Embraer, called an overemphasis on
major hubs the biggest challenge for commercial aviation in the Western
"I think it will really hurt North America,"
He said that in the fast-growing markets of China and India,
the aviation industry has been focusing on spreading connectivity beyond the
major cities and into tertiary markets.
"Look outside the United States for best practices,"
Slattery advised the aviation executives at Routes Americas.
Among the small airports represented at the conference was
Colorado Springs, Colo. The facility's director of aviation, Greg Phillips,
said he had meetings scheduled with seven airlines during the three-day event.
Last year was a relatively good one for Colorado Springs,
with Frontier Airlines entering the market with three routes, thereby
increasing the number of destinations served by the airport from nine to 12.
Still, Colorado Springs Airport's 600,000 enplanements in
2016 were just half of its enplanements in the mid- to late-1990s, when the
short-lived Western Pacific Airlines was based there.
Phillips said the Broadmoor resort, a Colorado Springs
institution, recently told him that its best year was 1997, during the
Western Pacific run.
"That connectivity is absolutely critical to minor
markets," Phillips said.
For the most part, speakers at the conference said the
solution to the connectivity issue should come from the private sector.
"I don't have
the answers, but I don't think it can be rooted in regulation," Slattery
said. "Airlines will fly where they will make money."
He said it is up to the airports to attract the airlines.
Phillips said that doing so can be a challenge for small markets. Colorado
Springs must compete for passengers and airline service against the larger
Denver Airport about 90 minutes away.
To entice customers, the airport promotes its convenience
for locals and its ease of use. To attract airlines, Colorado Springs, home to
the Air Force Academy, is attempting to diversify its revenue sources beyond
commercial air service so it has more freedom to lower the fees it charges
Low fees are key, Lukas Johnson, Allegiant's vice president
of network, told Routes Americas attendees. Allegiant has been a leader in
recent years among the mainline U.S. carriers in expanding to small and midsize
The carrier counts Punta Gorda, Fla., as its fifth-largest
base, for example, and it is currently growing faster in St. Petersburg, Fla.,
than any other market, Johnson said. In January, Allegiant named its newest
destination, Louisville, Ky., offering six routes to other minor markets such
as Destin, Fla., and Savannah/Hilton Head in Georgia. Johnson said airport
deals are "incredibly important" in Allegiant's expansion decisions.
"If you've ever sat face-to-face with us, you know how
big the deal is," he said. Fees, incentives and marketing arrangements are
among the inducements Allegiant negotiates with potential new airports.
While the loss of air service connectivity across U.S.
markets is a concern to tourism authorities, it's a positive for Allegiant.
"Anywhere there is a reduction, we think it's an
opportunity to go in and backfill that demand or even to grow it," Johnson
But while conference attendees touted private-sector efforts
as the primary means of bringing air services back to secondary U.S. markets,
U.S. Travel said that government can help as well by getting out the way.
U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow used the occasion of Routes
Americas to announce that the group will release a white paper in April called
Air Travel Blueprint. Among other topics, the blueprint will call for a
rollback on federal rules that prohibit airports from using their funds to
promote the cities they serve and the airlines that fly to them. Such rules,
said Dow, serve as an impediment for air service recruitment by small and