Smaller airports lure travelers with food, beer and other creature comforts

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    Chicago Rockford International Airport is focusing on the leisure traveler. (Rockford Chamber of Commerce)

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    Albuquerque International Sunport brought in the local Rio Grande microbrewery and made other changes to food concessions. (Albuquerque International Sunport)

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    Blue Grass airport in Lexington, Ky. introduced a Dunkin Donuts as a way to lure travelers. (AP)

For years, small and midsized airports in the U.S. have been losing flights and passengers due to the consolidation of airlines and shrinking competition in the industry.

“It’s not much fun being an airport director today,” said Eric Frankl, airport director of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.

“We definitely talked to our passengers about what they wanted. Branded coffee was a No. 1 request.”

– Eric Frankl, airport director of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.

Blue Grass and similar smaller airports provide service primarily from 37- and 50-seat jets, which airlines will be phasing out over the next five years “because they’re no longer economically viable,” Frankl said.

“It’s a perfect-storm scenario. It’s a smaller industry because there are fewer airlines, and now there will be fewer aircraft and potentially a pilot shortage.”

So in an effort to stay in business, smaller airports are paying closer attention than ever to consumers, offering better retail options and improved services in hopes of retaining passengers and revenue.

Over the last two years, airports including Lexington; Albuquerque, N.M.; Rockford, Ill.; and Savannah-Hilton Head in Savannah, Ga., have been bringing in local breweries, name-brand coffee shops, new restaurants, more volunteers, more parking spots and other creature comforts in hopes of persuading passengers not to drive to larger airports.

Such moves are helping smaller airports compete against larger ones despite the challenging environment, says Steven van Beek, a consultant with ICF International who provides business strategy and public policy advice to airports.  

Smaller airports have many advantages in their favor, van Beek said, citing less traffic, cheaper parking, easier-to-navigate buildings and shorter security lines.

Chicago Rockford International Airport, just 62 miles from Chicago O’Hare, focuses strictly on vacationers, and airport director Mike Dunn says the strategy is succeeding.

“Nothing angers people more than going to an airport and being hassled when starting a fun vacation,” Dunn said.

Serving customers from Madison, Wis., Milwaukee and the Chicago suburbs, Rockford emphasizes its free parking, which it increased recently by 10 percent; its “Airport Ambassador” volunteers, who help passengers with their bags and directions; and its large number of wheelchairs for seniors and others who need them.

As its main carrier is Allegiant, which flies to vacation destinations, Rockford recently opened a Caribbean-themed restaurant on the second floor to reflect its “The Vacation Starts Here” theme, Dunn said.

Albuquerque International Sunport has taken a hit as Southwest Airlines, its biggest carrier, shrank service by about 25 percent since 2008, says airport director Jim Hinde. So, about two years ago, the airport brought in the local Rio Grande microbrewery and made other concession changes. The new mix “just continues to produce,” he said. The airport also has vacant land that it can develop in order to increase revenue.

“We did a forecast a couple of years ago. We don’t see the need for a second terminal building even at 2030,” Hinde said. “We figure rather than have the land lay vacant, let’s develop it and see if we can generate some revenue.”

In Lexington, Ky., the focus is on coffee. Allegiant began new service, Frankl said, but the airport is still cutting expenses while boosting passenger amenities, such as its recent introduction of a Dunkin Donuts. “We definitely talked to our passengers about what they wanted. Branded coffee was a No. 1 request.”

Savannah-Hilton Head’s strategy is to have more flight options. After a roller-coaster ride to lure JetBlue – including an initial loss to Charleston – the airport ultimately won service with subsidies, said airport director Gregory Kelly. JetBlue started service on Feb. 13.  

Other efforts have brought a 20 percent bump in revenue since 2013. “We’ve been down this road before, we’ve seen how fortunes can change,” Kelly said. “Our slogan is: Let’s not take the foot off the gas.”

Van Beek points out that large city airports have more convenient and direct flight options, lower fares and larger aircraft. But some business people say they actually prefer a small-airport environment, as long as the service suits their schedules and budget.

“I am sticking with the small airport. In fact, I have only increased using it,” said digital media consultant Hal Bringman, a frequent traveler who regularly uses the Burbank airport when flying to Los Angeles because he views it as “a refreshing respite from the utter chaos that is LAX.”

Bringman said he likes being able to walk off the plane and be in his rental car “in less time than it takes a plane at LAX to land and find its way across the congested tarmac.”

Barbara DeLollis is founder of TravelUpdate.com, a blog devoted to giving intrepid travelers the latest news, trends and insider tips about airlines, hotels and restaurants. 

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