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Low-fare carriers are a key to success



Published: Thu, February 24, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Akron-Canton has tripled its number of passengers in the last 10 years.

GREEN, Ohio (AP) -- The relaxed pace at Akron-Canton Airport doesn't reflect that it's one of the fastest growing airports in the country.

Akron-Canton and other small to midsize airports are taking business from larger hubs with a formula for success that starts with a discount airline. Add in proximity to a big metro area, light traffic and short lines and the passengers seem to follow.

"I love this airport," said Elaine Smolka of suburban Chicago after landing at Akron-Canton on Wednesday. "I came from O'Hare and this airport is such a pleasure compared with what you have to go through there."

Attractive low fares

Smolka's not alone in her admiration for Akron-Canton, which has tripled its number of passengers in the last 10 years to nearly 1.4 million last year. Except for 2001, Akron-Canton's passenger traffic has increased every year since AirTran Airways began flying from there in 1996.

"We couldn't do it without them," airport director Fred Krum said.

Low-fare airliners have been the key to success for smaller airports, said Richard V. Butler, professor of economics at Trinity University in San Antonio. Passengers are attracted to the low fares and rival carriers then are drawn in to compete for the traffic that's been generated.

It's the same story at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich., which topped 1 million passengers last year.

"They called us the big white elephant in the field," airport spokeswoman Pat Corfman said. "Without AirTran, we would still be the big white elephant in the field."

'Very successful'

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said the company chose Akron-Canton and Flint because they were in underserved markets with high fares.

"Akron-Canton and Flint are both airports that have been very successful for us," she said.

Both are blessed with a great location. Akron-Canton is just 50 miles from Cleveland. Bishop is 70 miles from Detroit and the closest airport to booming Oakland County.

"These are airports that have repositioned themselves as secondary access points to a big area," said Mike Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, an Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting firm.

Smaller airports are compatible with discount airlines because they can get passengers in and out faster, limiting downtime on the runway, which is crucial to the airlines' low-cost model, said Hugo Burge, president of Cheapflights.com.

"There's an unrecognized battle going on between smaller airports and more traditional airports," Burge said.

Boston's 'other' airport

Manchester Airport in New Hampshire follows the formula, drawing from Logan International Airport in Boston 50 miles away.

Congestion at and around Logan and Manchester's addition of Southwest Airlines have helped it grow from one million passengers in 1997 to four million last year.

"We truly have become Boston's other airport," said assistant airport director J. Brian O'Neill.

But the formula can't be repeated everywhere. Many small airports are struggling and aren't located near a population base that's large enough to attract a discount carrier, Boyd said.

For the ones that are, the sky's the limit. Krum said that Akron-Canton could eventually grow nearly fourfold to five million passengers a year.




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