Why Travelers Flock to Airports In Small Cities

Lower fares, less congestion boost traffic at minor airfields

Corporate lawyer Sig Roos works in Boston. But he seldom flies from nearby Logan International Airport.

Instead, Mr. Roos drives an extra 15 minutes or more to Rhode Island's T. F. Green Airport, taking the interstate south to Providence, rather than fighting Beantown's snarled traffic. Parking at Green is closer and cheaper than at Logan. But the big incentive is lower airfares.

On a recent trip to Denver, the least-expensive round-trip ticket Roos and his wife could get out of Logan would have cost $700. The same ticket out of Green was just under $400.

"We always check the prices of flying out of Boston and Providence," says Roos, who flies about once a month.

The Rooses are part of the growing legion of frequent fliers who are forsaking congested, big-city airports for the benefits of smaller airports - often located in the outskirts of urban areas.

This dramatic shift in American travel habits can be seen by the sharp rise in traffic at a number of smaller airfields - including Burbank near Los Angeles; Oakland; Chicago's Midway; Milwaukee's Mitchell Field; Baltimore-Washington and Dulles near Washington, D.C.; Colorado Springs; and Providence.

Experts attribute the shift in air travel patterns to two factors: Low-cost carriers moving into these airports because they are less congested, allowing them to land and take off again in a short period of time; and, suburbanites who find it more convenient to go to an airport near them or to take a route that offers less traffic.

"We are seeing a lot of reverse leakage - leakage away to an airport where you have a low-fare service," says Michael Boyd, president of the Denver-based Aviation Systems Research Corp., which forecasts traffic patterns for 127 airports. "It is typically defined by one - Southwest Airlines. But other airports are seeing strong growth because of demographic movement as well as airline service."

Terry and Karen Coolidge who live in the greater Los Angeles area, for example, choose to fly out of Burbank Airport rather than Los Angeles International.

"It's a lot easier to get in and out of. It's a 20-minute drive to Burbank, and it's 45 minutes to Los Angeles, where you have to drive through bad areas," says Mrs. Coolidge.

MAJOR carriers at larger airports aren't ignoring what has been dubbed the "Southwest Effect." They often drop fare prices to keep from losing passengers to the discount carriers.

The average price of a one-way ticket from Providence to Baltimore-Washington in 1995 - before Southwest entered the market - was $167. It fell 71 percent to $48 in 1996. Major carriers in Boston lowered the prices of tickets for the same trip about 14 percent - from $156 to $134.

Other regions of the country are seeing the same benefits. Valujet recently moved into the Detroit and Cleveland markets. But instead of moving to those cities, ValuJet started service in Flint, Mich., and Akron, Ohio. "Big airlines retaliated by lowering fares out of Detroit and Cleveland," says Tom Parsons of Best Fares Discount Travel magazine.

Airlines like Southwest favor these airports because they don't have slot restrictions, more gates are available, and the traffic is lighter. New York's LaGuardia Airport and Washington's National, for example, have slot restrictions - meaning the take-off and landing positions are limited.

"With Washington National being controlled in terms of access, the real growth is occurring at Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International," says Dave Swierenga, chief economist at the Air Transport Association in Washington.

Another suburban airport that has seen tremendous growth is in Colorado Springs, Colo. Until this year, it was the fastest growing airport in the nation. The combination of a new, and very expensive, airport farther from downtown Denver and the arrival of low-fare carrier Western Pacific in Colorado Springs spurred the rise.

Western Pacific recently reduced the number of flights out of Colorado Springs from 36 to 23 flights per day. It formed a pact with Frontier Airlines to fly out of Denver as well.

But Gary Green, director of aviation at Colorado Springs, says slower growth isn't a problem. The decrease in Western Pacific's flights provides a respite. His airport has already outgrown a new terminal. In three years, passenger traffic tripled to 2.4 million. "By 1996, we were 17 years ahead of our original growth projections," says Mr. Green.

This shift in travel patterns alleviates congestion at larger city airports, making them safer. And the peripheral airports service passengers better. "The shift of traffic from a heavily used to a lesser used airport is really a blessing for all concerned," says Aaron Gellman at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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