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Regional Airports Face Headwinds

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Regional Airports Face Headwinds

A ticketing counter at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. (WBEZ/Adriene Hill)

Airlines have had a tough go of it recently. Fuel prices and tepid travel demand have forced them to cut flights and capacity. That means trouble for airports around the country, especially smaller, regional airports with already limited service.

In a story about airports, you might expect to hear a lot of airplanes. But at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport, it’s pretty quiet. Only two passenger flights are scheduled out of the airport the day I’m there.

ambi flight announcement

Caroline Butteris and her friends are among the dozens of people waiting for a plane to Las Vegas.

HILL: Why are you flying out of Rockford?

BUTTERIS: It was easier and cheaper than anywhere else.

Rockford attracts deal seekers like Butteris. It’s doesn’t fit the traditional regional airport model—there are no flights between major hubs. Instead, it offers flights to Florida, Las Vegas and Cancun.

It’s just the right fit for Tom Justen…who’s also waiting for the flight. He says he likes the airport’s small feel.

JUSTEN: It’s like Midway in 1955. There’s nobody here. $2 hotdogs. It’s just wonderful. There’s nobody in security when you go through.

But, the peace and quiet may be a sign of the times at regional airports, and not a good one. Passenger traffic at Rockford dropped nearly 75 percent in September from a year ago, after the airlines that served Rockford dramatically trimmed the number of flights in and out of the airport. It was the airport’s worst month in five years.

O’BRIEN: Make no mistake about it. The economy is affecting everybody.

Bob O’Brien is the executive director of the Rockford airport. He says the airport’s challenges are shared by the entire industry.

O’BRIEN: The reality is that across the country, big and small, whether you are O’Hare or Rockford or Dubuque, Iowa, the number of flights are being reduced and the amount of capacity is being reduced.

According to the Air Transport Association, nearly 100 airports nationwide will lose service from at least one airline by the end of the year. And 14 U.S. airlines have declared bankruptcy since the end of 2007—many of them small regional carriers.

When airlines go under—it can be devastating for regional airports. Gary Chicago International Airport, just south of Chicago, lost all of its commercial passenger service when Skybus ceased operations in April.

When small airports struggle it’s bad news for the effected region but also for the broader economy.

GELLMAN: Mobility in this country is one of those things you can indentify clearly that accounts the great success we’ve had socially as well as economically.

Aaron Gellman is a transportation economist at Northwestern University.

He says regional airports play an important role in establishing that mobility, by connecting people and businesses across the country. And if regional airports decline, it affects the whole national air travel system.

No one is predicting the complete demise of regional airports. Out at Rockford, Bob O’Brien is confident the airport will survive the downturn and bounce back when the economy recovers.

OBRIEN: We’re sitting on top of a gold mine. If we can just intercept the people not from Chicago, but the people that live outside of Chicago, that depend on Chicago O’Hare, we’ll do well.

Rockford already does a huge amount of cargo business—which helps keeps O’Brien’s dreams of expanding passenger service viable. And he’s continuing to try and re-work the regional airport model—doing things like introducing an airport based frequent flyer program. In spite of the dismal September at Rockford, he says passenger numbers for the year are only down about two percent.

It’s the sort of decline that many smaller airport operators likely envy in this turbulent economy.

I’m Adriene Hill, Chicago Public Radio.

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