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US Small Airports Less Stressful, say Travelers - 2002-04-10

Americans are flying again, six months after airplanes were transformed into instruments of terror, although major U.S. airports report the number of passengers is down by as much 25 percent. But some smaller, regional airports are seeing an increase in business as travelers find shorter lines and less hassle at the smaller aviation facilities.

Barbie Ricketts flies about ten times per year. Before September 11, the Peoria hairdresser and grandmother would drive 2.5 hours to either Chicago or St. Louis to catch a flight instead of flying out of Peoria. But no longer. "The amount of security going through a larger airport is very time-consuming" said Ms. Ricketts. "I think it's very stressful. I don't feel that in Peoria. I feel secure [here], but I don't feel stressed out with the security."

For Ms. Ricketts and others like her, the trade-off of saving a little money isn't worth it if it means standing in line for up to two hours to get through security at a bigger airport. Things are much different at facilities like the Greater Peoria Regional Airport.

On a recent weekday morning, four airport employees and two Illinois National Guard members are staffing the single security checkpoint. There are never more than ten people in line, and the average wait seems to be about five minutes. This scene is repeated at smaller airports across the country.

Officials in Akron, Ohio; Manchester, New Hampshire; Flint, Michigan; and Southern California are seeing an increase in the number of passengers while nearby larger airports post a huge drop-off from pre-September 11 levels.

Peoria Airport director Mary DeVries says these numbers will encourage airlines to consider scheduling more flights to the nation's smaller airports. "It makes other airlines look at our numbers. Of course, they look at every market share, they know where our numbers are. They are booked to capacity and we need the seats, and the airlines look at that," she said, meaning that most flights from Peoria are full, and if more flights were added, those seats would be sold, too.

Ms. DeVries says she hopes that even as bigger airports work to streamline security procedures, travelers will continue to choose to fly out of smaller ones. But Mike Boyd, a Colorado based aviation consultant, thinks this trend may be short-lived. He says the number of passengers that can make a small airport more successful isn't large enough to justify major route changes, and he doubts Americans will give up the convenience, amenities and lower fares of big hub airports, like Chicago's O'Hare.

The thought that suddenly we are going to relieve Chicago because everyone is going to go to Rockford just isn't going to happen," he said, referring to a regional airport about a 90 minute drive away. "These big metropolitan airports are going to continue to be the places people want to go."

Mr. Boyd says it is too soon to know the long-term effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks on airports across the country. But he says smaller airports have done a better job so far to recover and convince travelers it's safe and convenient to fly.