Airlines cut service to small airports; Congress looks for solution

If you don't live in a major city, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find flights to smaller airports.
A Boeing 737-700 United Airlines flight.
Posted at 11:28 AM, Mar 29, 2023

As United Airlines cuts flights to two small airports, members of Congress are looking into the impact of airlines pulling out of remote locations. 

Last week, United Airlines said it would soon pull flights from Springfield, Illinois, and Erie, Pennsylvania. 

United Airlines currently operates two flights from Erie to Chicago and two flights from Chicago to Erie. With the elimination of those flights, Erie will only be left with two outbound and two inbound flights a day. The news comes after Delta stopped flying in and out of Erie in July 2020.

Springfield, Illinois, will only have one daily flight in and out, although there are some non-daily Allegiant Airlines flights out of the airport. 

The reduction of flights out of small airports was recently the focus of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. 

"Most economic development happens within 10 miles of an airport. So if we’re hampering our airports, we are hampering our economic development,” said committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat. 

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Trent Moyers, director of the Pangborn Memorial Airport in Wenatchee, Washington, told senators his airport went from having four daily flights to Seattle to one. 

“Airports of all sizes bolster their local economies by connecting passengers and cargo with where they need to go, but it’s important to note that having commercial air service also directly provides workforce opportunities for their communities, from airline and TSA staff to aircraft servicing, administration, operations and maintenance, and public safety,” Moyers said. 

Moyers said that incentives have not gone far enough for airlines to make servicing small airports profitable. He said his airport garnered a $700,000 federal grant in addition to the $401,000 raised by the community. That amount was not enough to attract a new carrier, he said. 

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“If adequate incentives that are attractive to airlines and supportive of the communities they serve are available, the likelihood of successful airline recruitment improves. An airline that flies a route that does not foster resiliency is unlikely to operate beyond the life of the grant funds,” Moyers said. 

The reduction of services also reduces competition, which could also drive up prices. Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute, said her organization has objected to recent airline mergers, stating that they drive down the competition. 

“The economic reality is that airlines will only enter and remain in markets when they are profitable,” Moss said. “Otherwise, they will exit routes. This fact casts significant doubt on claims that post-merger, carriers will increase long-term connectivity for consumers.”