A photo caption in a previous version of this article gave an incorrect first name for the executive director of Williamsport Regional Airport. He is Richard Howell, not William Howell. The article has been corrected.
Williamsport is perhaps best known as home of the annual Little League World Series that draws tens of thousands of fans every year and fills both the city’s coffers and its airport. But getting to this north-central Pennsylvania hub became more difficult after the last commercial flight departed in October. Williamsport Regional is among dozens of mostly rural airports to lose service during the pandemic, the result of slashed routes, a pilot shortage and rising fuel costs in an industry where economics place the highest burdens on the smallest markets.
Even in the best of times, it was difficult for small airports to maintain or grow air service when more passengers equals more revenue. As carriers are emerging from the pandemic, that math has become increasingly challenging. Nearly 1 in 5 flights scheduled in 2019 were no longer operating in 2021, according to the Regional Airline Association. It was a toll that hit hardest in places like Williamsport.
“It’s been a nightmare for us,” said Jason Fink, chief executive of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. “We definitely need air service in this market.”
The loss of commercial flights comes as small communities increasingly are struggling to maintain services, such as quality health care, amid population declines. In Williamsport, which Census figures show lost 1,600 residents in the past decade, leaders fear the lack of air service could have a snowball effect, making it more difficult to keep businesses and to attract new employers to a town built by the lumber industry.
It’s a sentiment being echoed in dozens of communities across the country. Airports in Twin Falls, Idaho; Pierre, S.D.; and Binghamton, N.Y. — places where once-robust air service has nearly evaporated — sometimes operate a single flight a day.
“Airlines fly for profit, not pride,” said aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. “And smaller towns are increasingly falling by the wayside.”
The cost of jet fuel has more than doubled in the past year. Airlines are struggling to replace more than 5,000 pilots who left the industry during the pandemic. Meanwhile, competition for captains, first officers and other crew members is pushing up salaries, increasingly making service to small towns like Williamsport (population 27,754) less lucrative.
“When an airline looks at the economics of a route, smaller communities are going to bear the brunt of” any cuts, said Jeff Pelletier, managing director of Airline Data Inc. “There’s a finite number of pilots and a finite number of aircraft. Carriers can only do so much.”
Federal programs keep some small airports connected to the nation’s air system, but the pandemic has helped dismantle service at others.
The Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service subsidizes flights to areas that otherwise might not be served. The department has used another program to award more than $200 million since 2002 to help small communities grow air service — money often dangled before air carriers to lure them to a new market. As part of a coronavirus relief package in December 2020, an additional $5 million was added to the program to help ailing airports. Jurisdictions where service was lost or reduced during the pandemic were given priority, although the health crisis is only the latest sting for airports struggling to compete.
When the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, it opened the door for carriers to decide what cities they wanted to service and what they wanted to charge. Congress created programs to ensure smaller communities weren’t left behind, but those were never meant to last forever, said William Swelbar, chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy, a commercial-aviation analysis and research company.
Road improvements have also simplified driving longer distances. Southwest Airlines’ business model showed people would drive to more-distant airports for reliable service and cheaper fares, Swelbar said.
Analysts agree it’s important to keep small communities connected to the world. Those connections were once made with planes carrying nine to 19 passengers. Even some of the 50-seat aircraft that airlines increasingly shifted to over the past few years are being upsized to 75 seats or more, which many communities don’t have the population to support, analysts say.
“The number of small community airports with commercial service was always going to decline as aircraft became larger,” Swelbar said.
Faye Malarkey Black is president of the Regional Airline Association, which advocates for the nation’s smaller airlines — often a critical link between smaller and larger airports. She said she’s increasingly worried about how the pandemic and a scarcity of pilots will upend smaller airlines and airports.
“They always get hit first and worst,” she said of communities like Williamsport; Macon, Ga.; and Cody, Wyo. About two-thirds of U.S. airports with passenger service are served only by regional airlines, which tend to offer shorter flights that connect to larger hub airports.
According to the RAA, air service to small communities provides more than 1 million jobs and more than $41 billion in wages and tax revenue. In 2019, small carriers delivered 42 million passengers to mainline carrier flights.
During the Great Recession around 2008, 23 airports lost all commercial service, according to Stacey Mumbower, an assistant professor of management and technology in the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Smaller communities lost more than 31 percent of their departures, and at a rate that was five times that of losses at larger airports, according to an RAA analysis.
The pandemic-related downturn is further accelerating declines.
In 2009, more than three-quarters of the nation’s airports were served only by regional carriers, a number that has fallen to 66 percent as fewer communities are being served overall, Black said. Her organization found that total scheduled regional departures declined 22 percent from 2019 to 2021.
Theodore Alter, a professor of agriculture, environment and regional economics, and co-director for the Center for Economic and Community Development at Pennsylvania State University, said less-populated areas are on a path of continued decline unless national priorities change to help stem the tide.
“When it comes to essential services like regional air travel, the post office and Postal Service, what are we willing to do as a society to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be enfranchised and participate in our society?” he said.
Williamsport, which local historians say once was home to more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city, is no stranger to the ups and downs of the aviation industry.
In the 1980s, it offered more than 20 daily flights as more than 100,000 passengers moved through annually, said Tom Hart, who managed the airport for nearly 33 years. By 1990, passenger counts dropped to 48,700. The airport was down to a single carrier flying to one destination in 2019, serving 20,400 passengers.
As counts tumbled, airport officials hatched a plan for a new terminal to make Williamsport more attractive to other carriers.
Rather than remodel the two-story building that opened in 1948, officials raised more than $16 million in federal, state and local funds to build an airport with high-speed wireless, an expanded boarding area with seats that have charging ports, restrooms outfitted with no-touch faucets and paper towel dispensers, and a spacious security area that can be expanded.
Even on gray days, sunlight spills into Williamsport Regional’s lobby. Wide windows offer expansive views of the airfield and hills. Inside the secure area, a TSA officer on a recent day wiped down equipment, saying he looked forward to screening passengers again.
“Do you want me to drop a pin?” quipped Richard Howell, the airport’s executive director, as he guided a pair of visitors through the empty terminal.
In his modest office with windows overlooking the parking lot where the old terminal once stood, Howell spends his days trying to persuade an airline to take a chance on the two-gate airport. He’s got a $950,000 incentive to offer, courtesy of a federal grant, but no takers.
“This market demonstrated itself even through thick and thin,” Howell said. “It’s proven itself, that it could make money. It’s not a marginal market. It doesn’t necessarily need government subsidies to make itself profitable. It just needs a reliable carrier.”
American Airlines, the nation’s largest air carrier, said that even before the pandemic, the service wasn’t meeting financial expectations. Williamsport was one of 15 cities that American severed ties with when federal pandemic relief money temporarily ran out in 2020. Service to those communities was restored when additional pandemic relief funds were approved, but in Williamsport, it didn’t last long.
“Our regional portfolio is very important,” American said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We certainly rely on our regional operators to feed our hubs but in a world right now where we are constrained, we’ve had to cut service to some small cities.”
American noted it continues to offer service in State College and Harrisburg, about 65 and 95 miles away, respectively, from Williamsport.
For the region’s largest health-care provider, the lack of flights could harm recruiting efforts and the hospital’s mission of providing quality medical care, said Patricia L. Jackson-Gehris, chief operating officer of UPMC North Central Pennsylvania.
“High-level specialty surgeons that come on a travel basis, we don’t have an easy way for them to get in and get out,” said Jackson-Gehris, who also is president of UPMC Williamsport. “We can’t have them driving seven hours a day to do surgeries.”
About 120 miles northeast of Williamsport, Mark Heefner has a $1 million federal grant he hoped would lure more air service to Greater Binghamton Airport. Delta Air Lines once offered three daily flights to Detroit but is down to one. Still, Heefner, the airport’s commissioner of aviation, is lobbying for a second carrier that would fly to Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
Heefner said he can’t compete with bigger airports, but that shouldn’t mean small communities like his are left behind.
“We don’t speak for as many, but that doesn’t make us any less important,” he said.
Howell, who managed airports in California and Georgia, said he knows what his community is up against. An airline could make money flying from Williamsport, but it might make more flying somewhere else.
In the meantime, general-aviation flights operate at Williamsport, as do tenants that offer services to private aircraft. The Pennsylvania College of Technology’s aviation program is nearby.
The airport is still a community gathering spot. The Rotary Club meets every week in the sunny board room. It also hosts events for the Civil Air Patrol and the Lions Club.
At least three days a week, a steady stream of people enjoy breakfast and lunch at the airport’s lone dining option. On Thursdays, longtime patrons of Tracey Bartholomew’s cafe consume her made-from-scratch dishes, helping to fill the seats. On Fridays, it’s a local yoga group.
On a recent day over lunch, Tom Nau, 82, and his dining companions, Susan Stopper, 70; Victoria Muhs, 68; and Kim Painter, 58, recalled the energy that once filled Williamsport Regional, ticking off a list of cities they would like to visit.
“It’s just the four of us, and look at all the places we’d like to go,” said Stopper. “Imagine if you asked other people in the county?”
That’s part of what sets Williamsport apart from other airports, said Fink, the chamber of commerce official: The airport is also a gathering place. Pelletier, the Airline Data Inc. managing director, said there is hope for airports like Williamsport that have strong community support.
Meanwhile, Howell and other community boosters are optimistic that despite the odds, a carrier will see the value in a city that continues to evolve and reinvent itself. Critical to that transformation, he said, is reliable commercial air service close to home.
“We just can’t lose that connection to the rest of the world,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said during a recent visit to the area. “In some ways, it’s like a bridge that if it falls down, the alternate route is never commensurate with their equivalent to what you have now.”
With the industry still in transition during the pandemic, it’s not clear if cuts at smaller airports will be permanent.
Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said earlier this year the carrier had reduced flights to smaller markets by 20 to 25 percent and exited a “handful of markets” because of the pilot shortage. He said he hoped the airline could restore some routes later this year.
United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby told lawmakers at a December hearing he didn’t expect the outlook to improve in 2022. “We’ll see where we go in 2023.”
Kirby said the carrier reduced shorter routes and grounded about 100 regional aircraft, a move he attributed largely to the pilot shortage.
“There are places that have fewer flights and there are unfortunately places that have no flights,” he said. “There will be communities that unfortunately don’t have United service in the future, and there will be communities that have fewer flights, and there will be communities that have fewer flights with bigger aircraft.
“And that’s kind of the outlook.”
Story editing by Tim Richardson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Brian French. Design by J.C. Reed.