Why Are So Many Airlines Ending Service at Smaller Airports?

It's another big change for air travel

Airport signage
Airline route maps are changing.
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Domestic air travel can involve spending time at airports that can feel like cities unto themselves. I’m still reasonably sure that one could get lost in O’Hare for weeks at a time; I came very close to meeting this fate myself once while trying to make a connecting flight. On the other side of that spectrum are smaller regional airports; ones where there number of gates can be counted using one hand. These, too, have their charms; I have a story or two to tell about the night I flew into Santa Fe several years ago.

But it turns out that more regional airports have been losing service in recent years. That’s the big takeaway from a recent NPR investigation by Adam Bearne, which focuses on the airport in Williamsport, Pennsylvania as facing issues indicative of the industry’s larger troubles.

In the case of the Williamsport Regional Airport, the issues are especially pronounced: Bearne points out that commercial air traffic ended at the airport in 2021, and has not resumed. Why? As one industry expert told NPR, the same issues leading to canceled and delayed flights are also taking a more existential toll on smaller routes.

“The 50-seat jet today is just not economic as it was 10 years ago,” industry analyst William Swelbar told NPR. “Labor costs going up. Fuel costs going up. Maintenance costs going up.”

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Williamsport’s airport is far from the only one to lose traffic in the last few years. A report from consultants Ailevon Pacific noted that legacy airports had ceased operations at 74 airports in the U.S. since April of 2020. This includes some in close proximity to large cities — New York’s White Plains, Islip and Stewart all made the list — as well as airports in Duluth and Texarkana.

Earlier this summer, a coalition of regional airports sought federal aid with the aim of restoring lost service. NPR’s report also notes that Williamsport is seeking to rejoin the Essential Air Service program — something that could be a useful solution for several airports looking to regain places in airlines’ itineraries.


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