THE CURSE OF THE GHOST AIRPORTS
By Joe Brancatelli
April 7, 2010 -- When Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opens for business next month, frequent travelers will once again test the Field of Dreams scenario. You know: If you build it, they will come.
The $300 million gamble in the Florida Panhandle near Panama City—calling the place "sleepy" is already a cliché—will be the first major new international airport in the United States in more than a decade. And without meaning to question the sanity of the baseball gods or the commercial aviation and real estate forces that drove the development of Florida Beaches International, business travelers already know how this movie ends: If you build it, they probably won't come.
They didn't come to MidAmerica, a ghost airport near St. Louis that opened in 1997 and still doesn't have commercial flights. They're not coming to Branson Airport, the privately owned Missouri facility that opened last year. They're not coming to Gary, Indiana or Rockford, Illinois. And they've even stopped coming to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Those two airports are so quiet since their hub carriers departed or scaled back operations that entire concourses have been demolished, walled off, or converted to office space.
There are about 550 commercial airports in the United States, and dozens of them no longer have commercial flights. In June you can add Oxnard, California, to the dead zone. That's when United Airlines pulls its three daily flights from the airport located about 55 miles from Los Angeles.
There are dozens of sometimes-conflicting economic and aeronautic factors to explain why so many airports are falling off the nation's commercial route map. More than anything, however, it's simply a lack of passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration said last month that the nation won't reach the magical 1-billion-passenger mark until 2023. That's eight years later than the guesstimate the agency made just two years ago. Traffic not only isn't growing nearly as fast as experts predicted, it's fallen in each of the last two years. As noted last week, nationwide traffic in 2009 dropped below 800 million, down 8 percent from 2007.
Here's a look at how the paucity of passengers and other related factors have affected some airports around the country.
Panama City, Florida
The current airport serving the Panhandle, Panama City-Bay County, fields only 11 flights a day. So why roll the dice on Florida Beaches International, a $300 million replacement with a 10,000-foot runway and a $4 million state-of-the-art baggage-handling system? Ask the St. Joe Company, the timber company turned real-estate developer that owns a 75,000-acre track surrounding the airport. It contributed the land and has championed the airport's development. As of now, the huge gamble could take decades to pay off. Florida is a real estate sinkhole, and the airport, scheduled to open on May 23, has attracted just two carriers. One of them, Southwest Airlines, only agreed to fly to Florida Beaches after St. Joe promised to cover any losses.
The year-old Branson Airport is unique: a $155 million facility that was privately financed and privately owned. But unique doesn't mean successful. Only one airline (AirTran Airways) currently operates from the facility that was built to service the city that now fancies itself as The Live Music Capital of the World. Frontier Airlines will begin flights later this month, too, but the new airport is so desperate for other business that it has hired a charter carrier to launch a pseudo-scheduled airline called Branson Air Express. It begins operations next month. But this shouldn't shock anyone. Springfield-Branson National Airport, just 40 miles away, supports fewer than a dozen flights a day. And Joplin Regional Airport, less than 100 miles distant, offers just three turboprop flights a day.
Though you've probably never heard of it, MidAmerica in Belleville, Illinois, is famous, or rather infamous. NBC Nightly News showed up earlier this year to profile the facility for its "Fleecing of America" feature. It was actually a return visit. MidAmerica cost taxpayers more than $300 million in 1997 and was once called the "Gateway to Nowhere" by the usually charitable Tom Brokaw. Sharing some facilities with Scott Air Force Base, MidAmerica (now technically called MidAmerica St. Louis Airport) was conceived as a reliever facility for Lambert International in St. Louis. But TWA, which operated its worldwide hub at Lambert, was already troubled and scaling back. American Airlines picked up the St. Louis hub in 2001 as part of its deal to buy thrice-bankrupt TWA and has slashed service there even further. MidAmerica has no commercial flights now and has never had more than sporadic service during its 13-year run.
Rockford, Illinois/Gary, Indiana
Chicago politicians have been talking about a third airport for "Chicagoland" since the late 1960s. Two nearby airports, Gary/Chicago International and Chicago Rockford International, have long tried to convince airlines that they are perfectly positioned for the task. Gary certainly is. It's only about 25 miles from the Loop and even has direct commuter-train service into Chicago. The problem? It has no flights and hasn't had any since 2008. That's when Skybus, an ultra-no-frills carrier, folded. Gary is also an airline graveyard. All of the carriers that have served it in the last decade (Southeast, Hooters Air, SkyValue, and the last airline to use the name Pan Am) folded. Things are little better in Rockford, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago. Despite a major upgrade of facilities, it only fields about two dozen flights a week. Rockford is also a notable airline graveyard, having helped bury long-forgotten carriers such as McClain, Ozark, and TransMeridian.
When it was the primary hub of US Airways (nee US Air and Allegheny), Pittsburgh International was the very model of a major American airport. The built-from-scratch main terminal that opened in 1992 won raves from passengers for its logical traffic flows and its panoply of shops selling merchandise at reasonable prices. At its height, US Airways alone offered about 550 daily flights from Pittsburgh and flew 8.6 million passengers. Now 12 airlines together offer just 155 daily departures and carry only 8 million flyers. The terminal once had 122 gates on five concourses. Now just 50 are used. One concourse has been demolished, and two others have been partially walled off because there is no need for the excess capacity.
Besides being the airline equivalent of the "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" joke—Where is Cincinnati Airport? Nope. Covington, Kentucky!—Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International is Pittsburgh's bad-news twin. Delta Air Lines once operated more than 600 daily flights there, and the airport handled 22.7 million passengers in 2005. Now Delta has cut back to about 150 flights a day, and last year's total passenger count slipped below 11 million. As a result, Cincinnati's Terminal 1 has been converted to office space, and the three-concourse Terminal 3 is in slow-motion contraction. One concourse closed at the end of 2008. Another closes on May 1. Much of Cincinnati's decline can be attributed to fares. Despite two attempts in the last five years to reorder prices, Delta's fares from Cincinnati have traditionally been ranked at or near the top of the national heap. As a result, airport authorities claim as many as 20 percent of Cincinnati's potential customers have defected to airports in nearby Dayton or Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; or Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky.
The Fine Print…
For those of you watching the long, slow "unbundling" of airfares, here's the newest twist. Spirit Airlines announced on Tuesday that it now charges customers for some carry-on bags. If your carry-on bag doesn't fit under your seat, you'll pay as much as $45 for the privilege of using Spirit's overhead bins.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.