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Small airports rue merger


 
AirTran yields some routes
9:29 PM, Mar. 3, 2012  | Southwest 1
A Southwest Airlines jet lands at Chicago's Midway Airport as another sits at a gate. The merger of Southwest and AirTran Airways means changes in airline service for some cities. / Associated Press.
Atlantic City International Airport, within driving distance of airports in Newark and Philadelphia that have Southwest, lost AirTran’s daily nonstop service to Atlanta. 

In May, Spirit Airlines will help fill that void with a flight to Atlanta that will continue on to Dallas, albeit with one daily round-trip flight rather than two. But Spirit is a smaller airline that flies directly to each destination without going through a central hub. “It still does not give us connectivity to the national air network,” says Sharon Gordon, deputy executive director of marketing at the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Sarasota’s city leaders rejoiced when the Baltimore Orioles team chose the southwest Florida community in 2010 as its spring-training home. They calculated they’d draw enough baseball fans to justify spending $31 million to renovate their stadium.
Last year, they glimpsed a payoff. A record 115,000 fans showed up to watch 16 spring games in the first year the Orioles played in the rebuilt stadium. The visitors, the city figures, spent about $156 apiece each day in the area.
But joy turned to worry in January, when city leaders learned that low-cost AirTran Airways was ending nonstop flights to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

“To bring these people from out of town to start the economic wheel turning several times, it’s got to be as convenient as possible for them to get here,” says Steve Queior, president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.
Sarasota’s loss of non-top service from such places as Baltimore and Milwaukee is just one of the side effects of AirTran’s merger with bigger low-cost carrier Southwest. Fourteen other cities have also learned that they’d be losing AirTran and not picking up Southwest service. Some of them depended on AirTran for a quarter or more of their air traffic in and out of their cities.

As U.S. airlines continue to consolidate, travelers in many small and midsize cities are losing some connections to the nation’s air network. The departure of low-cost carriers is a particular blow because many rely on them to keep fares in check. Since AirTran ceased service to Quad City International Airport in Moline, Ill., on Jan. 6, for instance, the airport figures that overall fares have risen 31 percent.
The Southwest-AirTran merger leaves cities — including Knoxvillle, Tenn.; Lexington, Ky.; and Harrisburg, Pa. —scrambling to lure other airlines to their airports at a time when there are fewer carriers out there.

“It’s a cold hard fact that many communities around the country are losing their air service, not just from these mergers but from the cuts in capacity from American, United, Continental, Delta,” says William Swelbar, a research engineer at MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation.

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