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More small airports are being cut off from the air travel network. This is why

The Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa.
Heather Ainsworth for The Washington Post
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Getty Images
The Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa.

Walking into Pennsylvania's Williamsport Regional Airport is a strange experience.

It has everything you're used to seeing in a terminal building: check-in desks, a baggage carousel, car rental counters.

But there's one thing missing — passengers.

There haven't been any commercial airline flights out of Williamsport since American Airlines left in 2021.

To lose service entirely is rare. But the withdrawal of legacy airlines from regional airports is a growing phenomenon.

American, Delta and United combined have left 74 regional airports since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by aviation consulting firm Ailevon Pacific.

Changing economics

A shortage of pilots is partially to blame for major airlines' departure from smaller airports. But changing airline economics means the challenge facing regional airports could become insurmountable.

"The 50-seat jet today is just not economic as it was 10 years ago. Labor costs going up. Fuel costs going up. Maintenance costs going up. And it's hard for that airplane at that seat size to be profitable," longtime industry analyst William Swelbar told Morning Edition.

Those are the planes that typically service regional airports like Williamsport, which is why we're likely to see more small cities lose their airline service, according to Swelbar.

"In the West, the distances are greater, the terrain is more difficult, people need to fly. Whereas you look in the East, there's lots of airports that are located in a certain geography. And the highway system is terrific. That's why there will be more Williamsport," he said.

As regional airports increasingly run out of options for passengers, it will change how many Americans begin their journeys, Swelbar believes.

"The highway has become and will become the first access point to the air transportation grid going forward," he added. "Not every community can support the trend toward larger airframes."

Hard feelings

Despite the economics, the way legacy airlines are leaving smaller cities is frustrating to Richard Howell, the executive director at Williamsport Regional Airport.

"During COVID the airlines took $55 billion worth of money from the government for a variety of loans and PPP and all the rest of it. And as soon as COVID's gone, they start pulling out of markets like mine. I mean, they're literally abandoning rural America," he said.

Richard Howell, the executive director at Williamsport Regional Airport, stands in the terminal building.
Adam Bearne / NPR
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NPR
Richard Howell, the executive director at Williamsport Regional Airport, stands in the terminal building.

In a statement to NPR, American Airlines said: "It's always difficult to decide to end service to a market and there are always several factors to consider, including customer demand, alternative airport access for local residents and industry constraints like the regional captain shortage."

The economic effect of their decision to leave is already being felt.

World Travel International is a travel agency based inside the airport terminal. But in a cruel irony, the company's clients can't begin their journeys there.

"It's very sad. To know that we can't help people that need immediate service to leave right from here. Or like our older clients, having to pay a driver to get them to other airports because they're no longer able to make those drives," said owner Julie Johnston McManus.

"We've lost all our walk-by traffic," she added.

Beyond the terminal

It's not just inside the airport where businesses are struggling because of the lack of air service.

That's been identified as a big issue by site consultants looking to potentially bring businesses to Williamsport.

The Williamsport Lycoming Chamber of Commerce invites businesses to visit the city during the Little League World Series, which is held every year.

"We all work to try to get them to land their projects here. Last year was the first year that we did it post-COVID. And it was also the first time that we did it without an air service," said the Chamber's president and CEO Jason Fink. "And the number one deficiency that was cited was the inability to easily get here."

Williamsport Lycoming Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jason Fink stands on a street in downtown Williamsport, Pa.
Adam Bearne / NPR
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NPR
Williamsport Lycoming Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jason Fink stands on a street in downtown Williamsport, Pa.

In another ironic twist for a city without airline service, one of the biggest employers is Lycoming Engines, which makes piston engines for aircraft.

"When you're trying to conduct different business meetings and have the opportunity to bring in prospective customers, you want to have that flight service available in your city," said Shannon Massey, senior vice president at Lycoming Engines.

It's also affecting Lycoming's recruitment process.

"If you're trying to have candidates come in and they want to be interviewed, they have family members. And they want to know if they can or can't get to their families in a certain distance," Massey added.

Shannon Massey, senior vice president at Lycoming Engines, next to an antique aircraft engine at the company's Williamsport factory.
Adam Bearne / NPR
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NPR
Shannon Massey, senior vice president at Lycoming Engines, next to an antique aircraft engine at the company's Williamsport factory.

Hope for the future

Howell believes his airport can still make a comeback, if he can get some help from Congress.

He wants Williamsport to get back into a program called Essential Air Service (EAS).

It gives grants to airlines to fly to locations where it's tough to make money.

Williamsport dropped out when Congress changed the rules in 2012, saying that airports who didn't use EAS funds the previous year were no longer eligible.

Back then, the airport didn't need the money. But it does now.

"There's carriers out there that all they do is EAS because it's fully subsidized. They've got no risk. Even if I could just get back in the program for five or six years or something like that, so we get past this pilot thing," said Howell.

"Just get me in the door. Ultimately we get back to where we were, where there's no subsidy at all. The market sustains itself," he added.

But Howell understands the reality that cities like Williamsport are facing in an era where smaller planes are grounded.

"The planes keep getting bigger and bigger. So you out there with your 75 seat airplanes and things like that, you're next," he said.

"If we don't have some pieces in place that we get our elected officials to put there for us, then you're just going to be next on the list," Howell warned.

An old Challenger jet used to train students of the Pennsylvania College of Technology is seen behind a fence at Williamsport Regional Airport
Adam Bearne / NPR
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NPR
An old Challenger jet used to train students of the Pennsylvania College of Technology is seen behind a fence at Williamsport Regional Airport

A quiet runway

On the airfield at Williamsport Regional, a lone green tractor mows the grass.

But finally, a plane is spotted heading for the runway, a small blue and white private aircraft.

It's the type of plane that might be used to learn how to fly. And this pilot practiced a touch-and-go landing before immediately taking off again.

Circling the airport and repeating the process, there was no rush.

There's plenty of time for training when you have the runway all to yourself.

The audio version of this story was edited by Halimah Abdullah. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.