Best of Aviation Queen: If You Build It, They Might Not Come

Having covered the airports beat for four years, I found them to be fascinating.  They are like small cities (or large, depending on where they are).  They are a symbol of a community’s ties to the global transportation system.  They are seen as economic development engines and even points of pride.

So it was with great interest that I read Susan Carey’s Wall Street Journal article, “Small Airports Struggle to Get Off Ground.”  I worked a great deal with smaller airports during my tenure at Mesa Air Group, chasing after Essential Air Service program markets.  I also covered them as editor of Commuter/Regional Airline News.

Smaller airports were always looking for that magic formula to bring in that all-important air service.  One of those formulas was always something like “if we build a bigger terminal” or “it we lengthen the runway” we can get more airline service.

But the hard truth that many of these airports don’t want to face is that no matter what you do, you’re not going to get the service you believe you deserve.  Airlines are a lot more picky about where they fly, and even if you get them, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay.

It was always interesting to meet with city officials when you were going after their EAS business.  They would make these outrageous service demands, knowing full well they could barely justify the service they had only because of the largess of the federal government.

I love Carey’s example of San Bernardino, Calif.  At the beginning of my journalism career, I wrote about economic development.  At the time,  Congress had decided to close a slew of military bases, many of which had airports, San Bernardino being one of them.  So almost 20 years after Norton AFB closed, they have still not managed to attract an airline, despite having spent $142.7 million since 2007 on a passenger terminal, a  general aviation terminal and a building for U.S. Customs. One issue is there’s too many other alternative airports — including Los Angeles International — in the region.  Ontario Airport has that same issue.

Another example is Ohio’s Toledo Express Airport.  I’m sure it’s a lovely airport, but most of its potential customers drive to Detroit Metro for the selection that a hub airport gives you.  Even Toledo’s mayor — theoretically the facility’s biggest booster — was caught driving to Detroit.

And yet another example is Pennsylvania’s John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, about 2 hours away from Pittsburgh.  The late Rep. Murtha guided $150 million in federal dollars for a facility that has been empty at times, although it currently has United Express service to Washington Dulles International Airport.  So it will be interesting to see what stops smaller airports will pull out in the future to attract that new service.

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