Drive to fly is airlines’ plan

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While U.S. driving has been on a flat or downward trajectory for nearly two decades, another transportation trend is pushing in the opposite direction. That’s the steady migration of scheduled airline service from smaller airports to the big hubs.

In the wake of the Great Recession, major U.S. airports lost nearly 9 percent of their flights, but the small ones’ proportional losses were more than twice as much, the New York Times reports. “Declining local service often means that a traveler will drive for an hour or two to a larger airport for more choices and greater convenience,” the Times added.

In fact that’s become the new business plan for the shrinking number of major U.S. airlines: Instead of maintaining flights from, say, St. Cloud, to feed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International hub, Delta Air Lines now expects passengers to feed themselves to MSP with windshield time.

St. Cloud and other smaller cities are fighting back with efforts to leapfrog the nearest hub to specific destinations or an even bigger, distant hub such as Chicago’s O’Hare. This usually relies on federal payments to a carrier, but still may not be sufficient to keep the service for long.

So, while St. Cloud gets a subsidized daily round-trip to Chicago next month via a United-Sky West partnership, at the same time Thief River Falls has temporarily lost all its flights and Rochester is losing its weekly nonstops to Mesa, Ariz., and the Mayo Clinic’s Phoenix campus for good.

“Rochester’s airport has long worked at attracting and keeping airlines, although it’s hindered by lower-cost flights from Minneapolis,” the local PostBulletin reported. “Most experts say the bottom line is that the airport will likely need to offer financial enticement of some sort to attract more service. After establishing the relationship, the the passenger numbers need to be there to keep the service.”

Nearly two years ago, Rochester International secured a $500,000 federal grant to help woo more service and the city council sweetened the pot to $750,000. But since then, no flights have been added.

Meanwhile, a new federal rule that increased sixfold the flight time required for commercial co-pilots, from 250 hours to 1,500, has hampered regional carriers such as the Upper Midwest’s Great Lakes Airlines. In February it suspended its flights from Thief River Falls to MSP along with service at Jamestown and Devils Lake, N.D.; Ironwood, Mich., and Fort Dodge, Iowa.

The airline hopes to resume flying to Thief River Falls by June. Meanwhile, the closest alternative for the area’s air travelers is Grand Forks, N.D., 60 miles away via a two-lane highway.

Great Lakes still serves three South Dakota cities with flights to MSP and Denver, but its cancellations went up sixfold after the rule change last August. Doctors have missed surgeries and some people have missed weddings, Mike Isaacs, manager of the Pierre Regional Airport, told the Associated Press. “Folks, after they get stung once or twice, they’re going to drive,” he added. “And I don’t blame them for that.”

Other factors such as the gradual retirement of inefficient 50-seat regional jets are also behind the airlines’ moves. But it’s hard to see how forcing air passengers to drive for hours to reach flights will improve the overall efficiency of our transportation system. Solutions unyet imagined are needed.