In light of the economic slump and high fuel costs, airlines are reducing, and, in some cases, eliminating all together, service to hundreds of “second-tier” cities around the country in an effort to tighten their belts.
In fact, the Air Transport Association reports that nearly 100 airports have lost commercial air service in the last eighteen months. While second tier cities aren’t the usual stomping grounds for consultants, the trend isn’t a good one.
Last year, Air Midwest ceased its routes to Charlotte, N.C. and Pittsburgh, Pa., and the cuts are only expected to deepen. Some cities, like Springfield, Mass. have seen their last remaining carrier pull out, at least for now.
Word is U.S. airlines are bracing for an estimated $1 billion in losses this year alone. Federal subsidies and local grants are helping some small airports boost revenue enough to keep their routes on big carriers, but if the demand isn’t there, no amount of fundraising will create it.
The city of Ely, Nev. (population 4,041) received $1.8 million in federal dollars under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. EAS is a government program that ensures airlines maintain commercial service to small communities. Since only 414 people flew into or out of Ely Airport in 2008, the EAS money amounted to $4,500 per passenger.
However, others see opportunity in the cutbacks. SeaPort Airlines, launched last year with shuttle service between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, will use federal subsidies to begin flights this fall using 9-seat turboprops, according to SeaPort officials.
This type of air-taxi service, travel industry experts say, could be the salvation the second-tier cities need to survive—at least for the time being.