Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest time of the year for air travel. But commercial air travel is not what it once was and the problem is not just skyrocketing airfares or proliferating extra fees. At the heart of the increasingly unpleasant commercial flying experience is the hub airport system and how it is centralizing everything to the advantage of a few privileged carriers and favored airports. Twenty-nine U.S. airports are defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as large hubs because they each handle at least one percent of annual air traffic. The large hubs get the lion's share of non-stop flights and other services.
These large hubs serve major cities, including familiar facilities like DFW in Dallas-Forth Worth, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, LAX in Los Angeles, Denver International Airport, New York's John F. Kennedy International and Chicago's O'Hare. Their proportion of traffic has grown exponentially in recent years as airlines transfer more flights from the smaller airports. As a result, departures from America's 109 medium- and small-hub airports have decreased 22.2 percent since 2007, according to a recent MIT study.
Higher airfares, frustrating flight delays and cancellations, long security lines, mergers and labor troubles dominate media coverage of the airline industry. That's unfortunate because it obscures what is likely the most significant wide-ranging consequence of the large-hub system -- the economic damage it inflicts on hundreds of smaller cities and the millions of people who live in them. Colorado Springs, for example, is the center of an otherwise thriving area that includes the Air Force Academy, several other large military facilities, Pikes Peak and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. The Colorado Springs Airport had approximately 700,000 customers last year. The airport still lost more than a third of its flights.
Similarly, Will Rogers World Airport serves fast-growing Oklahoma City, but flights there are down five percent despite the expanding economy. Travel agent Kathy Dorough told the Washington Examiner recently that only American, United, Delta and Southwest serve Will Rogers now. “Back in the Dark Ages, we used to also have Braniff and Continental, American, Delta, Northwest, Eastern, Pan-Am and TWA, but they have all gone by the wayside,” she said. Large-hub DFW, three hours south of Oklahoma City, was a big beneficiary of the changes.
Having a busy airport is crucial to a city's economic growth prospects. But the airlines are pushing the non-large-hub cities toward a permanent disadvantage that hurts jobs, quality of life and access to economic opportunities. They also use rapacious pricing and other measures to block competition from new entries that might take root in the smaller cities, thus effectively forcing them into second-class status.
Airlines ought to be profitable, but they depend upon tax-paid infrastructure like the FAA's air traffic control system, municipal airports built with federal assistance, and other indirect subsidies from taxpayers, millions of whom are being forced to pay more for less convenient service. Without reform, the airline industry is sentencing the non-large-hub cities to slow and steady economic stagnation. Congress, are you listening?