Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Wed March 23 2016

Is a New Trend Helping Smaller Airports Succeed?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | March 23, 2016

Is a New Trend Helping Smaller Airports Succeed?

Illustration courtesy of Thinkstock

Many airports in smaller markets have been struggling as legacy carriers look to trim lower capacity routes and focus on those services that have the highest demand. This trend seems to be continuing. For example, United Airlines is trimming its operations at Cleveland Hopkins International. The airline has renewed its lease on some gates at the northern Ohio hub, but it has decreased its presence overall.

Bucking the trend

One airport seems to be bucking the trend. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International (MKE) is an example of a new trend for airports in smaller markets. Mitchell’s passenger numbers grew by 10 percent in February after a six percent increase in January. These numbers are even more impressive considering that these two months are usually among the slowest of the year for air travel.

Southwest Airlines was the biggest contributor to this traffic spike. The airline saw an increase of 12 percent in February. However, the low-cost carrier was not alone when it came to passenger number growth. All the major airlines that offer service at the Wisconsin hub saw an increase in passenger numbers compared to last year.

READ MORE: Frontier Airlines Announces 42 New Routes

All three legacy carriers have a presence at Mitchell, as do Frontier and Alaska Airline. In all, the airport offers service to 38 domestic destinations. Air Canada flies to Toronto from MKE and Aeromexico and Sunwing fly to sun-and-sand destinations like Cancun, as does Southwest.

How is the Milwaukee hub growing when other airports in similar-sized markets appear to be shrinking?

Southwest Airlines has a lot to do with it. With the addition of nonstop flights to San Diego later this year, Southwest will have nearly two dozen seasonal and year-round routes from MKE.

Another low-cost carrier, Frontier, seems to have noticed Southwest’s success and the increasing demand. It has decided to offer more flights from the MKE as well. The Denver-based budget airline will start flying to Dallas, Atlanta and Philadelphia in the coming months, doubling the number of routes that it serves from the airport.

READ MORE: Southwest Airlines Adding 7 New Nonstop Routes

Low cost carriers stepping in to smaller markets

Low-cost carriers have helped Mitchell stay relevant. Locals no longer have to travel down to Chicago or take a multi-leg journey to get to their destination because there are so many direct flight options right from Milwaukee.

The same trend could also work for Cleveland, and in fact it may have already started. Frontier is launching four new routes from Hopkins in April and resuming service to Phoenix during the same time period. The Phoenix service will resume just a week after American Airlines ends its service to the Arizona hub. Meanwhile, Southwest, Spirit and Frontier all fly from Cleveland to Las Vegas, a route that United is dropping in early May.

This trend seems to be a win-win for smaller airports and for low cost carriers, and it looks like it is going to continue as low-cost carriers look to grow in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee. 


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