Commuter lines give small airports new lift under deregulation

Chances are that airline deregulation has been good to you. If you live in a major city, you have more airlines, destinations, and prices to choose from. But what if you happen to live in a city of 161,799, like Worcester? Are you better off because of deregulation?

The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, it often means more flights to more destinations. On the other, it rarely means bargain-basement fares or a seat on a big jet.

Like many other small airports across the country, Worcester waved goodbye to its only major airline a few years ago. Taking advantage of deregulation, Delta Air Lines stopped its three daily flights from Worcester to New York in 1980. After Delta left, the number of passengers boarding at Worcester plummeted. Only 8,630 people boarded last year, compared with 37,360 in 1979.

But Charles Olson, manager of this hilltop airport an hour's drive west of Boston, is not sour on deregulation.

In fact, ''I have a fine attitude now,'' he says from his office overlooking the runway. Last year, Ransome Airlines saw an opportunity in Worcester, and since it began service in January, it has been pulling in passengers.

''We now have more flights to more destinations,'' Mr. Olson comments, ''and we need that.'' The airport boasts 18 daily flights to such destinations as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine, and New York. Olson expects the number of boarding passengers to reach 15,000 this year and double that next year.

Before deregulation in 1978, the major carriers had to serve the small and midsize cities and fly the short routes. Though it's more expensive for large jets to fly short hops or serve cities with a small passenger base, the financial pinch was eased by government subsidies. However, once deregulation got under way, carriers had the freedom to enter more economical, long-haul routes. And with the prospect of subsidies running out, they began to pull out of the smaller cities.

To a large extent, the gaps have been filled by commuter and regional airlines. And, as in Worcester's case, the result has been more flights to more places.

But there are price and comfort trade-offs that can come with the added convenience. Passengers often have to board and disembark far from the main terminal. Many commuter planes are too small to hold a lavatory. The ride is sometimes rough. And some passengers perceive propeller-driven planes as unsafe. (The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) says the public is misinformed on the safety issue.)

''I took a few flights with Bar Harbor (a regional airline that now serves Worcester with prop planes). We had no hostess, no lavatory, not even a cup of coffee,'' complains Sol Flamholtz, a semi-retired Worcester resident who travels mostly for pleasure now. ''Too bad Delta left - they had a jet.''

Frequent business travelers like the convenience and don't seem to mind prop planes.

''I have to leave my house three hours early to catch a Logan (Airport in Boston) flight. Here, it's 20 minutes,'' says Larry Hosey, a business flier waiting for a Ransome plane at Worcester airport. He especially likes Ransome because ''they give me personalized service.''

But price is a trade-off that often can't be made up by either convenience or on-board service.

''This is probably my first, and last, time I'll fly here,'' says David Bruno , who usually flies to Boston. He tried Worcester because it's closer to his client, but ''the fare is double what I pay on People Express.''

Most analysts say higher fares simply result from economics: It costs more to operate a short-haul route than a long-haul one. Sen. Mark Andrews (R) of North Dakota says he believes that the larger carriers are supporting their fare wars by charging unfair, high prices to many cities off the beaten flight path.

William Geenen, treasurer for Air Wisconsin, says passengers are unlikely to see major discounting in small cities ''because the volumes just aren't there.'' However, he says many passengers don't realize they can get joint-fare discounts if they book one ticket that includes the regional and the major carrier. When they book the two flights separately, he says, they can't get such discounts.

The price outlook is better for midsize cities where the passenger pickings for airlines are better. Here, new airlines with nonunion employees and used jet planes can operate with lower costs. Northeastern International Airways, which just started up last year, is scheduled to begin Kansas City-to-New Orleans service on Dec. 15. Ticket prices will range from $69 to $89 one way.

''There is room for price reductions just about everywhere,'' says Stephen Quinto, Northeastern president. ''A market that is paying through the nose is ripe for takeover.''

''Overall, small communities are as well off as they would have been without deregulation,'' says Patrick Murphy, who runs the CAB small communities program.

On a case by case basis, some communities have fared better, some worse. For instance, cities located within an hour of major airports will lose service because there won't be enough passengers to support it, Mr. Murphy says. These travelers will opt to drive to the major hubs where they can get discounts and more flight choices.

''Those cities with a good population base, and which weren't well served by (major) carriers,'' will attract more regional airlines, he says.

Statistics from the CAB show that since deregulation in 1978, the number of daily departures in small communities has decreased by 1.2 percent. Adjusting those figures to account for lower traffic due to the air controllers' strike and the recession, and the impact looks even more insignificant. And, the CAB is quick to point out, no small city served by a major carrier at the time of deregulation has completely lost air service.

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