US medium size airports feel brunt of airline cuts: MIT

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Airlines have cut the most flights from medium size airports across the USA as the industry has eked a path to profitability during the past five years, according to a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study.

These airports saw domestic departures fall by 26.2% between 2007 and 2012, according to the study by Michael Wittman and William Swelbar in MIT's International Centre for Air Transportation. Medium size hubs are defined as those with 0.25% to 1% of national air traffic by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and include airports like Dallas Love Field, Oakland and Providence.

"These mid-sized airports are the ones that were hit particularly hard by capacity discipline, consolidation, [etc]," says Wittman at the Regional Airline Association (RAA) annual conference in Montreal on 8 May.

By comparison, departures nationally fell only 15.3% to 8.3 million annually during the period, according to the study. Large hubs saw declines of 8.8%, small hubs 18.2% and non-hubs 15.4%.

Southwest Airlines, among the mainline carriers, is named as reason for the cuts. Wittman cites the shift in the low-fare carrier's strategy towards serving large hub airports and away from service to mid-size reliever airports near large metropolitan areas. Departures from large hubs increased 6% between 2007 and 2012, he says.

Oakland, near San Francisco, and Providence, near Boston, are examples of this shift. The Dallas-based carrier began service to Boston Logan International in 2009 and San Francisco International in 2007.

Mid-size airports are not the only ones feeling pressure. Mainline carrier service is at risk at small airports that either lack demand and a US Department of Transportation essential air service subsidy, or are in the catchment area of a large or medium hub served by ultra low-cost carriers, says Wittman.

These include airports like Toledo Express, which is about 80km (50 miles) from Detroit's Wayne County International, and Trenton's Mercer County, which is within an hour drive of both Newark Liberty International and Philadelphia International. Toledo risks losing all mainline service while Trenton already has but may emerge as a focus city for ultra low-cost carriers like Frontier Airlines.

"Most likely, smaller airports will continue to go quiet, but not dark," says Wittman, citing the fact that some level of mainline carrier service to small cities will remain and the existence of the ultra low-cost carriers.