Worcester not only city without air service

By Steven R. Maher

Worcester critics often point to a lack of airline service at Worcester Airport as unique to the city. Yet it’s a problem other municipalities are facing as well.

“Financially strapped airlines are cutting service, and nearly 30 cities across the United States have seen their scheduled service disappear in the last year,” the New York Times reported in a May 21, 2008 article entitled ‘Airline’s Cuts Making Cities No-Fly Zones’. “And the service cuts are far from over, as jet fuel prices rise, airlines shut down and companies consider mergers, like the Delta-Northwest deal.”

Brand new airport
The Times detailed how the city of Hagerstown Maryland invested $64.1 million to build a new 7,000 foot runway so the airport could be used by regional jets instead of the turboprop planes that provided its only service. Two months after the runway was completed “the airport lost scheduled air service altogether. Despite its costly investment, a dogged marketing effort by local officials and even help from Congress, the airport has had no luck attracting a new carrier, as the industry struggles with soaring fuel prices.”
Operating under the proposition “build it and they will come”, Plattsburgh New York constructed a new airport on the site of a former air force base. Today the “airport offers three flights a day on a nine seat Cessna to Boston” and “four weekly flights to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando”. The existing flights in Plattsburgh probably would not exist were it not for a government subsidy.

That subsidy came from the Essential Air Service, which was created in 1978 to ensure that the newly deregulated air industry would continue to service remote and rural communities. “Under the program, the government provides subsidies of about $100 million a year to the airlines, resulting in services to 102 communities,” the New York Times reported. “But the subsidies have not risen fast enough to cover the jump in jet fuel costs, and passengers have resisted paying higher prices for plane tickets, prompting carriers to pull out of a number of cities, including Hagerstown.”

The main culprit
The main culprit is the same one bedeviling car owners: the energy producing companies. Airline fuel costs have increased 84.5 percent in the past year. The result has been a self-feeding cycle in which airlines, faced with rising costs, cut back on routes and raise rates. Consumers, with fewer choices and higher costs, cut back on air travel, causing the airlines to further eliminate sparsely used routes.
The bald statistics tell the story. The Times reports: “The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, predicts 211.5 million people will fly between June 1 and Aug. 31, down more than 2 million passengers from last year’s record of 213.5 million. Flights seem to be disappearing daily.”

Accompanying the article was a chart of the major airports with the largest cuts in flights. Number three on the list was Logan Airport, which in one-year lost 1,704 flights out of 13,284 flights.

The prognosis for Worcester – and other small cities – is grim. If Logan is suffering such drastic flight cuts, Worcester is unlikely to attract carrier service from a major airline. The brutal reality of the law of supply and demand means Worcester will remain without air service for the foreseeable future.

Worcester Airport’s one hope is to become a niche market, a niche that some will find unsavory. An industry consultant interviewed by the New York Times saw only one way small cities will attract new airline service. “You can profitably fly small airplanes only if the people on them pay very high prices,” he said.