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Oppenheim: Smaller Airports

So the other day I was surfing online when I came across something which, at first, might not seem as compelling as say - the last thing Donald Trump just said.

Still, I got hooked.

It was a Burlington Free Press interview with Gene Richards, Aviation Director at Burlington International Airport.

It reminded me of a time when I lived far from many airports. I had choices, but a long drive to get to a plane.

Now my airport commute is like 10 minutes. I have far fewer choices, and flights are more expensive. But getting there – and getting through – is easy.

So I was taken by what Richards had to say about why the airport can’t strike a deal with Southwest Airlines.

I’ve always loved Southwest. It’s not the prices. It’s not the cute things they say on the aircraft PA system.

It’s the flexibility. If something changes with your plans, Southwest doesn’t hit you with big change fees. Your ticket is more like cash you can re-use. Some of the other guys don’t do that.

But Richards says, every year, when he meets with Southwest to discuss a deal, it turns out, it doesn’t work for either side – at least not yet.

Southwest wants volume, a guarantee of 7 flights a day. They fly bigger planes too, and we just don’t have that many people in the region who would want to fly to Baltimore-Washington airport for a destination or a connection.

For its part, the airport wants stability. Yes, Richards says, there’s space to accommodate more flights… but if Southwest were to come in, then later pull out, the airport could be left high and dry. Richards points to a sharp reduction in flights by Southwest that hurt Manchester, New Hampshire.

And of course, the latest landscape for air travel has been consolidation. The three big dogs left are United, American and Delta. In a changing marketplace, Southwest is less focused on small markets – and more on going to big ones.

So airport directors like Gene Richards want a mix, and don’t want to rely too much on any one carrier.

That sounds smart. But it also reminds us that being small means being vulnerable. Getting in and out of here by air isn’t just a matter of convenience; it’s critical to the state’s economy. For now, we can appreciate the little airport that works. But with lighter demand and less competition, Burlington International won’t soon become a place where you can hope to get a bargain.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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