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The Pleasures and Pains of Small Airports

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Over the past few years, I have become an aficionado of small airports (if not necessarily small airlines, as I'll explain) for one seemingly unrelated reason: increased automobile traffic. I offer this stat: In the past 20 years, traffic volume has increased by 105 percent in metropolitan areas, while road capacity has increased only 45 percent. If roads seem much more congested of late, it's because they are.

What does a stat about city traffic have to do with your choice of airports? The simple fact is that most major airports are in or near major cities -- so when you drive to and from the airport, you are very likely to find yourself in some of the worst traffic the country has to offer. By looking for flights to small regional airports on your next flight, you may be able to bypass the traffic to, from and around the airport -- not to mention long lines, clogged security checkpoints, overflowing parking lots and worse.

What Is a Small Airport?
When I talk about small airports, I don't mean Knoxville, say, or even Honolulu; we're talking about Bedford, MA or Trenton, NJ. But "small" is not just about size, but also about vibe -- for example, I would count the airports in Kahalui, Maui; Atlantic City, NJ; and Sarasota-Bradenton, FL as small airports.

What defines a small airport? For one, parking right in front of the terminal -- and often free parking. These lots often feel more like a grocery store parking area than an airport. (In fact, they're usually less congested than a grocery store parking lot.)

Additionally, there are often only one or two gates; in some cases you'll find a half-dozen or so gates without sacrificing the small-airport feel and experience. What about the experience is so attractive? This is an easy one: You don't feel like you've been in street fight when you finally sit down in your seat on the plane.

Small airports are not perfect. You might encounter minimal amenities, but this is easily countered by short waits -- who needs a massive bookstore and sprawling food court when you have an eight-minute wait in the airport?

The Pleasures of Small Airports
Why do I like small airports? Let me count the ways:

1. Getting there is almost always simple and speedy. Many of these airports are located a turn or two off a highway in uncongested areas.

2. Getting around once you reach the airport is even easier; you might encounter a stop sign or two, but nothing like the rotaries, over- and underpasses, confusing signage, and curbside logjams you routinely encounter at large airports.

3. Parking is almost absurdly easy: Pull into parking lot directly in front of the terminal, lock your car, walk a few yards to the terminal without worrying about getting run over, done. Repeat on return flight.

4. Walking distances are extremely manageable. At my local airport, it's 100 yards from parking to the terminal, 20 steps from the terminal entrance to check-in and the waiting area, 10 more steps to the security gate, and about 6 steps again to the flight gate itself.

5. You won't stand in an unheated shelter before dawn waiting for the economy parking shuttle drivers to get moving.

6. The seeds of air rage, including full parking lots, awful drivers, AWOL shuttles, and broken escalators and elevators, are almost completely absent.

7. I'm not sure if I'd recommend this on a first trip to a new airport, but the whole notion of arriving two hours ahead of time simply does not apply at most small airports. At two of the airports I frequent, giving yourself enough time to walk to the gate is pretty much enough time to make your flight. A few vets of the routes show up with less than five minutes to spare -- they know that everyone else is already checked in and has gone through security, so they cruise through, get on the plane and are on the way. For these folks, it's about 10 - 12 minutes from car seat to plane seat; talk about being time efficient.

8. And don't forget about sensible and affordable fares. Your mileage may vary, but I have almost always found that fare structures on flights to and from smaller airports are fair and understandable; prices tend to be consistent from one flight to the next, and one seat to the next. The whole thing actually seems to make sense!

And the Pains...
The most salient downside of a small airport is the very limited flight availability. In some cases you may have a choice of only one or two flight times daily, and sometimes routes are not flown on certain weekdays or weekends. This is especially true of the small airlines that often serve small airports. Worst case is the potential for complete shutdowns in the event of required repairs, staff shortages or the like; there are no other people, planes or flight times to absorb passengers who have been delayed or stranded.

Weather can be a problem in this respect as well, but on the upside, the more intimate environs make it less likely that you will be treated like a piece of luggage that happens to breathe, less likely to be hoarded onto a plane that then sits for hours a few feet from the gate, less likely to end up sleeping on the floor -- you get the picture.

There also may be less structure at times. For example, check-in, security wave-throughs and boarding checks are often done by the same people (or person in some very small airports), and they work on a first-served basis -- priority lines and zone seating aren't in play.

Further, you may find more of the same if you are boarding a flight for which your airport is serving as a connecting airport. For example, I stepped onto a Delta Shuttle flight to Boston this past winter to find a plane full of people who had been onboard since Atlanta; as we entered the cabin, the flight attendant said, "We don't have time to reseat everyone; just find any empty seat." So if you had a preference for window or aisle, or had arranged for a specific seat, you were out of luck.

Also, many small airports are dull, dull, dull. The Trenton airport is decorated largely with old photos of the Trenton airport; you can marvel at an antique prop plane for only so long before your brain starts to spin itself.

Amenities may be rustic at best. Unless you like Andy Capp fries and Mountain Dew from a machine, some small airports may not fulfill your requirements for a satisfying meal right before your flight time. Likewise, spas, shopping, elite access lounges and perhaps Internet access are at a minimum in smaller airports.

Smaller airports are usually home to short and mid-range flights, and very few international flights; you won't be able to book all your travel to and from small airports.

Security may be tighter in some cases, although this won't necessarily mean it will take longer. Against all logic (against mine, at least), the security review at some small airports is more stringent than that at larger airports by several orders of magnitude. Before a puddlejumper flight last year, the 15 passengers on my flight had to turn on laptops, cameras and other personal electronic devices; open all of our bags; and submit to an inspection by a bomb-sniffing dog. Wow. The upside here is that the whole thing took about 10 minutes for the lot of us (though the repacking took a little longer). To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why this would be -- it seemed like a case of idle hands looking for something to do?

Not So Small Airports
There are some very conveniently located, slightly larger airports that can offer many of the upsides of the truly small airport, and far fewer downsides. The Akron-Canton airport, located about 50 miles south of Cleveland, is a good example. Witness the Web site at http://www.akroncantonairport.com. The entire marketing plan revolves around a simpler, easier airport experience. The intro page to the site plays a short animation that reads "Nearby Parking -- Shorter Lines -- Less Crowds -- Low Fares," and the text on the page adds one critical note: "less confusion."

And while parking may not be free, these small-ish airports also tend to have lower costs. At Akron-Canton, short-term parking rates are $12 a day -- only a dollar more than the long-term parking at Newark Airport, which feels like it is miles from the airport terminal (because it is). Weeklong parking at Akron-Canton is $40 a week; you'll pay more like twice that at most large airports.

How to Find These Airports?
The easiest way to work out your alternatives for nearby smaller airports is to use the "show nearby airports" option when searching for flights. This option is particularly easy to use on aggregator sites like Kayak.com and Sidestep.com. Among the major booking engines, Travelocity also has a "compare surrounding airports" option.

While you might not want to (and definitely won't be able to) fly cross-country on a direct flight into the Trenton airport, a whole lot of the alternate, not-so-small airports are superb or even superior alternatives to the major airports. Long Beach vs. LAX is no contest; I haven't flown into LAX since the day I had the option not to. If you have a choice on your next flight, consider trying out a nearby small airport -- you may experience a classic case of less is more.


Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

Photo Credit: Photo appears courtesy of Akron-Canton Airport.
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