When Small Airports Aim High – and Afar

Small airports can be a pleasure to fly from. Easy parking. Walkable concourses. Few delays. But behind the scenes and on the balance sheet, they have some economic challenges. It was through this lens that I read about South Bend Regional Airport in Indiana changing its name to South Bend International Airport. The thing is, it has no international flights—just wants them. I suppose they’re following that old adage, “Act as if.” (And they will apply for government money to construct a federal inspection station.)

International flights are key to airport financial stability for a few reasons:

  • Landing fees for international flights are generally higher than domestic flights because they’re based on weight.
  • These flights often draw new domestic traffic, with passengers connecting to the international flight.
  • International routes are increasing as the world flattens.

So it makes financial sense for a small airport to aim high and try to add international routes. Dovetailing with this is the development of smaller aircraft with greater range. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner has singlehandedly contributed to smallish-airport growth—those that cannot accommodate the wide-bodied aircraft so often used for long-haul and ultra-long-haul routes can easily slip in a Dreamliner.

My hometown small airport, Oakland, does a fair business with Mexico flights, but the world (or at least Europe) has opened up with proposed Norwegian Air 787 nonstop service to Oslo. (There are some complications with this–a big sticky wicket you can read about here.) Similar benefactors of the 787 are smallish San Diego and San Jose.

I’m not of the belief, as some legislators seem to be, that it’s a constitutional right for people in small towns to have a thriving airport. (If you choose to live in South Bend, it seems reasonable to expect you to drive two hours to Chicago for your big trip.) But if it’s a win-win-win for airlines to add a route, locals to travel farther faster and the airport to grow, then I’m all for that.

Good luck with your new identity, South Bend International Airport.

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