Small of Fame: Some of America’s fastest-growing airports are now small airports. Here’s why.

Five years ago, America’s small-city air service was shrinking. Take the second quarter of 2013, as an example, when the country’s busiest 50 airports (Atlanta to Columbus, at the time) enjoyed y/y seat growth of almost 2%. But airports ranking 51 to 100 (Cincinnati to Wichita) saw a 2% decline. Trends today? Very different.

This quarter, the top 50 are growing at a nearly 4% clip. Not bad for a mature economy. But the next 50? Their rate is more than double that. The elevated growth holds true for the next 100 U.S. airports too, from Colorado Springs to Jacksonville— no, not the one in Florida, which most people have heard of, but the one in North Carolina. There’s something brewing in America’s smaller cities.

Where, more precisely, is this robust expansion taking place? Examples of smaller airports with seats up more than 20% this quarter y/y include Stewart north of New York City; Islip east of New York City; Aspen, Colorado; and Rochester, Minnesota. Some are not far from cracking the top 50, like Providence, Rhode Island, where seats are up 25%. Others barely crack the top 200, like the airport in Belleville, Illinois, otherwise known as MidAmerica airport on the outskirts of St. Louis.

There are, to be sure, some small- and medium-sized airports in decline, like hurricane ravaged St. Thomas and Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. The story is similar for the Pacific resorts Guam and Saipan, both U.S. territories suffering from earlier North Korean missile provocations and Delta’s downsizing in Tokyo. Southwest’s abandonment means two smallish Ohio airports—Akron Canton and Dayton—are much less busy today than they were a year ago. Monterey, California, is a victim of Alaska’s decision to cut flights.

But those are the exceptions. Things are different now from five years ago, when regional airports were losing service more universally due to some influential structural forces. One was a new FAA rule in 2013 requiring more pilot rest and training time, leading to a shortage of regional pilots. This in turn scrambled the operations of Republic, most notably, sending it on a path toward bankruptcy. In 2013, remember, fuel prices were still high—almost $3 per gallon— wreaking havoc on the economics of smaller jets, especially 50- seat CRJs and ERJs. The Big Three, led by Delta, responded…

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