Small airports hit hard by airline cuts

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Bob Moon: If you traveled by air this holiday weekend, you may have already discovered it's not as easy these days to find an easy flight. When times were good, it seemed the airlines would take you anywhere you wanted to go. Small regional airports got a lot of overflow from their big hubs. Here in the L.A. area, there's Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario and Santa Ana. Around New York, there's Islip and Newburgh. But as airlines have cut capacity and routes, many of those smaller airports are suffering. Chicago Public Radio's Adriene Hill reports.


Adriene Hill: Chicago Rockford International Airport is clean, bright, airy and nearly empty. Tom Justen's one of the few passengers in the airport the day I visit. It's easy for him to get help with his bags. He breezes through security in a flash.

Tom Justen: It reminds me of Midway back in 1955. There's nobody here. Two dollar hotdogs. It's just wonderful. There's nobody in security when you go through.

But what's good for the passenger could be bad for the airport. Airlines have cut flights to Rockford. Passenger traffic at the airport fell nearly 75 percent in September, compared to a year ago. It was Rockford's worst month in five years.

Bob O'Brien: Make no mistake about it. The economy is affecting everybody.

Bob O'Brien is executive director of Chicago Rockford.

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 were being reduced and the amount of capacity was being reduced.

People are flying less as the recession takes hold. Airlines are cutting routes as their revenues fall and costs rise. Some are going bankrupt -- 14 since the end of last year. And when airlines go under or pull out, it can devastate regional airports.

Gary Chicago International Airport, just south of Chicago, lost all of its commercial passenger service when Skybus ceased operations in April. The airport depends mainly on cargo traffic. In Los Angeles, Ontario airport hit the skids when ExpressJet and JetBlue quit the airport. Other airlines have cut service.

Aaron Gellman is transportation economist at Northwestern University. He says a strong network of regional airports makes it easier for companies to get goods and people from place to place. So when regional airports fail, it's bad for the broader economy.

Aaron Gellman: Mobility in this country is one of the few things you can identify clearly that accounts for the great success we've had socially as well as economically.

Passenger mobility has dropped off, but the need to transport goods is still giving small airports a lifeline. Chicago Rockford is depending on its cargo business to get it through these bumpy economic times. And O'Brien's confident that passenger traffic will come back.

O'Brien: 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.

He's hoping the airport will double its passenger traffic in three years, to 500,000. That's still small potatoes compared to an airport like O'Hare which handles tens of millions of people a year. But it may give Chicago Rockford's security guards a little more to do.

In Chicago, I'm Adriene Hill, for Marketplace.

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