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Issues with Large Commercial Carriers Trouble Small Town Airports

July 3, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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Trouble has been brewing among large air carriers, plagued with high costs, competition and traffic, but these troubles have now begun to take their toll on regional airports, which are struggling to just survive. Elizabeth Bracket reports from Indiana.
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JIM LEHRER: Tough times for the nation’s regional airports. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports from Terre Haute, Indiana.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Bill Foraker offered me a ride in his 50-year-old Piper Comanche to show me why the Terre Haute International Airport is in such trouble.

The empty skies told the story. There were no commercial planes in sight. Despite Terre Haute’s three runways — one of them long enough for any wide-body plane — only 56 private planes now use the facility.

BILL FORAKER, Piper Comanche Pilot: It’s a tremendous facility. We’ve got nice runways here; we’ve got a full-time FAA-staffed control tower; we’ve got radar facility; we’ve got good tee hangars. It doesn’t get any better than this as an airport for general aviation.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Does it make any difference to you if there’s commercial aviation here?

BILL FORAKER: It does as a citizen, but not as a pilot. As a citizen, I’d really like to have more, you know, commercial activity here. I think it’s a good thing for the airport, and it’s a good thing for the city.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Like many Midwestern regional airports, Terre Haute once had commercial airline service. When it opened in 1944, thanks to a $100,000 donation from Tony Holman, Jr., owner of the famed Indianapolis Speedway, the airport featured airlines like TWA and Chicago and Southern.

In its prime, 12 to 15 flights a day left Terre Haute. Locally owned Britt Air flew a full schedule through the 1980s.

Today, all those airlines are defunct. And with Indianapolis Airport an hour away, no other airlines want to come to Terra Haute, says airport authority board president Darryl Huyett.

DARRYL HUYETT, Terre Haute Airport Authority Board: We’re in close proximity to Indianapolis Airport, which takes a lot of the traffic. And they have a lot more direct destinations than we had here.

And the last airline that was here, Great Lakes, just decided that it was more profitable for them to be somewhere else, and they just pulled up and left. And we still had a lot of passengers flying at that time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So if Indianapolis is so close, why does Terra Haute need its own airport? Well, this town of just under 60,000 that stretches along the banks of the Wabash River could use the money.

Despite the historic homes and magnificent courthouse, the city has been hard-hit by the recent loss of major businesses. Mayor Duke Bennett says bringing a commercial airline back to the town’s airport would make a huge impact.

MAYOR DUKE BENNETT, Terre Haute, Indiana: Having airline service really puts you in a different class. It’s kind of like a lot of communities that have a professional team. You know, you raise your awareness; you raise your marketability.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: If the airport could attract 10 commercial flights a week with a 10- to 50-passenger seat capacity, it would translate into $1.1 million in economic impact annually for Terre Haute. It would also mean the airport would be eligible for $1 million annually in airport improvement funds from the FAA.

To get a piece of that pie, the city and county put up a million dollars towards subsidies and start-up costs to entice Big Sky Airlines to come to the airport. But before the carrier’s Terra Haute debut, it went under.

DARRYL HUYETT: We were going to bring them in here as a commuter to some of the hubs. And, unfortunately, they went out of business before they got here. But the community did step up, and the community was willing to step up.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Terra Haute is not alone. At least 20 Midwestern regional airports that once had significant commercial service have now lost it all; that’s according to a new study done by transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman at the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University.

JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN, DePaul University: In the roaring ’90s, with service expanding everywhere, it looked like only a matter of time before the regional airports established a real role. Now that we’re seeing these high fuel prices, we’re seeing the business market change. The high-fare traffic isn’t there. It’s a much harder game to make these airports work.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The airport in Gary, Indiana, only 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, learned the same hard lesson Terra Haute did about airlines going under. Though six commercial airlines have flown out of the well-equipped facility in the last five years, none has been able to stay in business.

Last march, Gary announced a deal with a new airline, Skybus. Airport director Chris Curry.

CHRIS CURRY, Director, Gary/Chicago Airport: We were very excited to have Skybus. They had a great business plan, in our opinion. They had significant financial backing from Morgan Stanley and Fidelity. It doesn’t get any better.

They came into the industry with $160 million in revenue, which was $30 million more than JetBlue did when they came into the industry. They started here, flew for about three weeks, and they went out of business.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The reason was clear, says Curry.

CHRIS CURRY: The high cost of fuel. When they came into the industry, the price of crude oil was $62 a barrel. When they left the industry, it was $116 a barrel.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The loss of Skybus was yet another blow to a community that has been economically depressed for years. Although the city has a new Minor League Baseball field and some downtown renovation, a revived airport is a necessity, according to Mayor Rudolph Clay.

MAYOR RUDOLPH CLAY, Gary, Indiana: Well, first of all, the airport is the engine, really, that’s going to make northwest Indiana turn and soar like an eagle. That airport is extremely important.

REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY SPOKESMAN: Well, the airport will hire people.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To make that engine turn, the director of the recently created Regional Development Authority makes his pitch for the airport everywhere he can, including this cable access show.

The authority put up $20 million of a $92 million airport expansion plan. The rest of the funds came from the federal government and the city of Chicago.

Chicago has long urged the airlines that fly in to overcrowded O’Hare and Midway to use Gary as an alternative airport. But so far, no major airlines have agreed.

What Curry now hopes is an expanded runway and the addition of a customs facility in the terminal will help him snag his latest target: an international passenger airline.

CHRIS CURRY: We do have one airline in mind. Several months ago, we were approached by an airline operating in Mexico by the name of VivaAerobus, which expressed interest in flying daily flights from Monterrey to Gary.

We have a large population base of Hispanic and Latinos within close proximity, 9.5 million people in metro Chicago, of which 1.9 million is Hispanic and Latino, and 80 percent have Mexican ties.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But with the high cost of fuel forcing flight cutbacks and layoffs in the major airlines today, Schwieterman says it’s very difficult to continue to look upon regional airports as an area’s economic engine.

JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN: Airports today are like railroads were a hundred years ago. That’s the first place municipal officials look to sort of brand themselves, to sort of make a statement to the business community.

And so big money is pumped into these airports, but there’s one part of the equation they can’t control, and that’s the decisions of the airlines, and clearly the airlines aren’t interested now in a whole lot of new routes.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That doesn’t mean Gary and Terre Haute won’t continue going after a passenger airline. It just means right now the going is pretty tough.