Small Cities, Big Problems: America’s smaller towns and cities are suffering an epidemic of lost air service

America’s smaller towns and cities are suffering an epidemic of lost air serviceIn the giant U.S. airline market, small planes play a big role. Just how big? Regional carriers—including those wholly owned by larger carriers— operate more than 40% of all U.S. commercial airline departures, carrying about a fifth of all U.S. passengers, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA). That’s equivalent to about 160m passengers annually. At Chicago O’Hare, for example, more than half of all departing flights are on sub-100-seat aircraft flown by regional carriers. Some two-thirds of all commercial airports in the U.S., meanwhile, have no mainline service whatsoever—just regional planes.

Well, bad news: America’s regional aviation is in crisis. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. As the RAA explains, between 2013 and 2016, 309 U.S. airports experienced schedule reductions of at least 10%, 208 lost at least 20% and 52 lost all passenger air service. In the Jan. 23 issue of Airline Weekly, a chart citing Diio Mi schedule data showed how more than half of all U.S. states saw declines in scheduled airline seats in the past decade. In 2015, the latest complete year of data published by the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, all U.S. airlines, using planes of all sizes, carried a record 798m passengers, a decent if unspectacular 11% rise from 2010 levels. Even excluding international enplanements, the increase was a solid 10%. But enplanements on regional carriers alone? These were down 4%. One more way to look at it: In the first five years of this decade, U.S. airline seat capacity increased 8%, with capacity measured by ASMs up 20%, driven by more longhaul flying. But there were 4% fewer departures, again reflecting the decline and fall of the country’s regional air service.

The reasons for this are many, including economic developments that have favored larger cities and pressured smaller ones. Among these trends: the concentration of high-paying knowledge-sector jobs in places like New York and San Francisco and the loss of manufacturing jobs in states like Ohio, which in recent years lost both of its airline hubs (Cincinnati and Cleveland). Nobody flies between New York and San Francisco on a regional jet.

But more influential are developments within the airline industry itself, including those involving fuel costs, labor markets, consolidation, aircraft technology, government policies, chang-…

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