Smaller Airports Have Big Appeal

Small airports offer few restaurants, shops and services, but they’re favored by many business travelers. There’s less traffic driving to them, they have shorter security lines, and it’s easier to get from gate to gate to make flight connections, says Frank Crawford, president of an accounting firm in Oklahoma City. Frequent fliers cite other advantages: Small airports are less crowded, parking is cheaper, checked bags are delivered faster, and car rental facilities are more convenient. “Small airports may not have all the services and amenities travelers desire, but they are convenient,” says Jim Gaz, of J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information firm that surveys travelers. Houston’s Hobby ranks as the No. 1 small airport in customer satisfaction, according to the company’s most recent consumer study, which was released in May. The study surveyed more than 10,200 air passengers, including at least 100 for each of 19 small airports that were ranked. Small airports handled fewer than 10 million passengers last year.

 

Hobby and four other small airports ? Dallas Love, San Antonio, El Paso and Hartford (Conn.) Bradley ? scored higher in customer satisfaction than the highest-scoring big airport, Dallas/Fort Worth.

Repeat performance

It was the second-consecutive year Hobby was ranked at the top. A new central concourse opened in 2004, and all airlines were moved into it last May, says airport manager Mary Case. Other improvements: new restaurants and shops, new signage, “soothing” music in the terminal, electronic toll-collection in the parking garage and an outdoor walking/fitness trail.

“Hobby is very easy to navigate and very compact for a traveler to make connections,” says Crawford. “The d?cor is fairly modern, and it has Wi-Fi capabilities and more than decent dining and retail choices.”

The lowest-scoring small airport in the J.D. Power study was Austin-Bergstrom in Texas. Among other things, consumers gave the airport poor scores for speed of delivering checked bags.

Austin-Bergstrom “has the best ambience of any airport in North America” and scored well in baggage claim in a survey by a trade group, Airports Council International, says Austin airport spokesman Jim Halbrook.

That survey, released in March, named Austin-Bergstrom the best North American airport for customer service.

Bill Schafer, who works for a New Jersey manufacturer, says he loves Austin’s airport. It’s new, clean, has many services and free Wi-Fi, he says.

California’s Long Beach airport also scored low in the J.D. Power survey, but frequent flier Sammy Tawil is a fan.

“By far, my favorite two airports in the country are Ohio’s Akron-Canton and California’s Long Beach,” says Tawil, the vice president of a stone and tile company in Port Reading, N.J. “I can get out of the plane, in my rental car and on the highway in 10 minutes or less. It would take up to an hour to do that at the big airports nearby in Cleveland and Los Angeles.”

Stephanie Dickey, a vice president of sales who lives in Richmond, Texas, has four favorite small airports. She says the airport in Savannah, Ga., has “fresh, great food, great service and great shops.”

Dickey likes the airport in Knoxville, Tenn., because it’s clean, has rocking chairs, “good food past security” and “great people working there.” The airport in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is very clean, has “very nice shops” and is staffed by “lovely” employees.

But small airports, other frequent fliers say, have disadvantages. There are few or no flight options if a flight is canceled or delayed, and fewer or weaker-quality restaurants, shops and services while waiting out a delay. They also usually lack airline club lounges.

When time doesn’t fly

“If I have to sit around an airport, I want a club and things to do, places to eat,” says Schafer. “The chances of missing a flight and still catching the next one are far greater when you go from large airport to large airport.”

Another business traveler, Jim Mallory of Dallas, is adamant about the advantages of big airports.

“Give me a big city airport any day,” says Mallory, who works in the health care industry. “Chances are, the corridors will be wide, and there will be plenty of restrooms close by.”

For Barry Bleidt, a professor at the Texas A&M pharmacy school, big vs. small may be a tossup. “I like the smaller airports for the shorter security lines,” he says. “I connect to large airports and get to take advantage of their restaurants, clubs and shopping. Best of both worlds!”

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