Fly Local: Advice for Small Airports

by Jennifer Davis
General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport

How to buck the trend of shrinking air service at small airports…

Bill Swelbar has never been to Peoria, but he can say in five words what it needs to do to ensure the success of Peoria International Airport. “This is the year… communities need to recognize that they need to use it or lose it. I don’t think we should be sugarcoating that,” he declares.

In addition to being a research engineer at the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, where he is affiliated with numerous airline industry groups, Swelbar is executive director of the Regional Air Service Alliance, an advocacy group for small community air service. In 2016, he was appointed to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Working Group on Improving Air Service to Small Communities. He’s also chief industry strategist for Delta Airport Consultants, Inc., an airport consulting firm based in Richmond, Virginia.

Swelbar’s experience and titles are vast, but his advice for small airports is short and to the point: use it or lose it.

Essential Connectivity
Although Peoria International Airport (PIA) had its third busiest year in 2017 and recently added two new destinations, this advice resonates with the airport’s board and executives.

“It’s been said that the airport runway is the most important ‘Main Street’ in any town, and it’s so true,” says Karen Jensen, president and CEO of Farnsworth Group, a national engineering, architecture and survey firm based in central Illinois. Jensen also chairs the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria, which oversees PIA and Mt. Hawley Airport, a general aviation airport in North Peoria.

Five Forces Impacting Air Service
More than at any time in its deregulated history, airline industry dynamics are having a profound impact on air service levels, particularly in smaller communities. According to Delta Airport Consultants, Inc., the following five forces impact not only a community’s pursuit of new routes, but also its ability to retain what it has.

  1. Consolidation. More than 83 percent of the domestic demand in the U.S. is carried by just five carriers: American, Delta, United, Southwest and Alaska. Back in 2008, there were close to 20 airlines that communities could approach regarding air service. Today, there are nine.
  2. Capacity discipline. From 2010 through at least 2014, the industry added capacity (flights and/or seats) at rates significantly less than GDP growth. This frustrated air service development efforts, as the industry was in effect playing a zero-sum game when it came to capacity deployment. It was adding no aircraft for growth purposes; rather, it would simply take an aircraft from one profitable market and place it in a market that was even more profitable. 
  3. Fuel. The rising cost of jet fuel that began in 2004 and culminated with a per-barrel cost of oil at $147 in July of 2008 has had profound effects on air service, driving the industry to adopt the strategy of capacity discipline. While fuel prices are not at historic highs now, they are creeping up. The cost of jet fuel most impacts smaller aircraft—those that serve the smaller U.S. markets.
  4. Fleet evolution. The size of domestic aircraft has been increasing over the past decade, and that trend is not expected to be broken for years to come. 
  5. Pilot shortage. This is the “elephant in the room” for small airports when it comes to retaining current service, let alone attracting new service. It is a structural issue and, therefore, difficult to overcome. It’s believed that the weakest performing markets will be the first to lose service—assuming a reasonable driving distance to a better-connected alternative airport exists. By 2020, the industry will be 3,000 pilots short and will need to park another 300-plus aircraft due to the shortage.

“Air service will follow the economy, unlike in the past,” the report notes. “The airlines are now focused on profits and not market share… There has never been a time when economic development agencies and airports should work closer than now.”

Source: U.S. Air Service Beige Deck, 2Q 2017 Edition, Delta Air Consultants, Inc.

“With more than 20 offices nationwide… Farnsworth Group depends on the connectivity our airport delivers,” she adds. “The airport is essential to our success, and our entire region’s economy relies on the service it provides. In today’s competitive business climate, maintaining and attracting new business to central Illinois requires strong air service—and it’s the responsibility of our community to support the services PIA provides. We are so fortunate to have service of that caliber available to us.”

Swelbar agrees that Peoria “ranks very high” when it comes to connectivity. In fact, Peoria “is actually blessed to have all three network carriers and Allegiant.”

Non-hub airports like PIA are, for the most part, not seeing the same growth as larger airports. In fact, according to one of Swelbar’s most recent studies, “nearly 30 percent of the nation’s smallest airports are witnessing traffic declines, all the while traffic is growing again” at large and midsized airports.

Bucking the Trend
Encouraging our region’s business leaders to adopt a corporate travel policy of choosing Peoria International Airport first is a key way to help convince airlines that future investment in PIA is worthwhile, says Gene Olson, director of airports.

“Fly Local campaigns aren’t new, but the ones that garner strong commitment can make change, sometimes very quickly,” he explains, noting the surge in growth at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota after Mayo Clinic announced a new policy requiring the majority of its 32,000 employees to use Rochester’s airport for business trips. Since Mayo announced their commitment in May, passenger traffic at Rochester International Airport has surged 27 percent. A month after the announcement, United Airlines decided to start serving this city of 114,000 with three flights daily to Chicago O’Hare, while Delta Air Lines added additional flights to two hub airports, Atlanta and Minneapolis. “Rochester’s airline capacity is increasing faster than any other regional market in the upper Midwest—a testament to the community’s years of hard work and dedication,” said Jack Penning, managing partner of Volaire Aviation, an air service consulting firm, in a press release announcing the five new flights.

Mayo Clinic, which established Rochester’s first airport in 1928 to serve its patients, is no longer involved in its management, but it recognizes the importance of a strong local airport. “To the extent the airport flourishes, so will our community, and travelers will be rewarded through competitive pricing, schedules and reliability,” the clinic noted upon announcing the policy change.

Several months later, “administrative and allied health staff use of Rochester International Airport is at approximately 95 percent, and the use by physicians and scientists has voluntarily grown to 50 percent,” Steven McNeill, Mayo Clinic’s chief planning officer and chair of the Rochester Airport Co. Board, told the Rochester Post-Bulletin in December.

Challenges Ahead
Olson notes it’s encouraging to see another Midwestern city—one similar to Peoria—buck the trend of shrinking air service to small airports. “We’ve had some successes, too,” he adds. “We added two new destinations—Charlotte, North Carolina, and Destin, Florida—and we’ve seen the resumption of first-class service on our flights to Dallas/Fort Worth. 2017 was our third busiest year on record, and we’re proud to be one of two downstate Illinois airports with daily flights to four of the five most-connected airports in the U.S.”

That said, a nationwide pilot shortage and other challenges mean every community must capture as much of its local air travel as possible. A recent market analysis, however, shows PIA captures just 58 percent of the air travel within a 25- to 40-mile radius. That means 42 percent of travelers who live close to PIA are instead choosing to drive to another airport. Indeed, 33 percent are choosing O’Hare International Airport, according to the study.

“We know we have challenges ahead,” says Olson. “Much of the growth we’ve had over the last decade has come from Allegiant adding more nonstop leisure flights. While this is wonderful for our community, our focus also needs to be on growing the routes that serve domestic and international business travel. We’re starting to reach out to local businesses, asking them to join us and pledge, as much as they are able, to prioritize their business travel out of PIA.”

To that end, PIA has launched a Fly Local campaign of its own. “Our goal is to get the people who are choosing another airport to instead make a conscious choice to use their hometown airport,” Olson explains. “It’s the only way we’re going to grow.”

Airports like Peoria and Rochester aren’t just competing against other regional airports near them. The competition is nationwide, and it’s fierce. A decade ago, the four top U.S. carriers had 57 percent of the total domestic airline traffic. Today, American, Delta, Southwest and United control more than 80 percent.

Further, more than 75 percent of commercial air traffic uses just 30 airports. The trend, as many experts note, has been to prioritize the mega-hub airports at the expense of smaller regional airports. In 2014, there were 445 airports with commercial air service in the 48 contiguous states. Today, there are 432.

“We’re at an inflection point here,” says Swelbar. “Will all of these airports keep their service? No. 350? Maybe. 300? Sure. But I think we all have to be honest, small airports that lie in the shadow of a medium or large-size airport have challenges ahead.” iBi

For more information on the Fly PIA campaign, visit flypia.com.

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