Raise your hand if you live in or near a large city with access to a sizeable airport. You know, the kind of airport that offers multiple flights daily to numerous destinations. Where there are lines to wait in, restaurants to eat at, and it actually takes a bit of time to get to the gate. Now, raise your hand if you have ever been curious what it would be like to travel when you don’t have these same luxuries. Did you raise your hand?
Most of the US population lives within a reasonable distance to a major (often international) airport. We do not. The nearest airport that fits this description is a 4.5 hour drive to another state. However, we are fortunate that we do still have air service in our community. There are many challenges and many perks to this.
I always like to get the bad stuff out of the way first, that way I can focus on the good. Here are the challenges for flying via small local airports.
Limited flight options
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our airport offered limited flight options. Generally, there were 4 flights per day on United Airlines and 2 per day on Delta. Six total flights is all there is! Or was… Unfortunately, this is greatly reduced and it is uncertain whether it will ever return to pre-pandemic levels. Nonetheless, having limited flight options can be a hinderance when trying to get the heck out of dodge for a bit.
Additionally, the two airlines that service our airport operate on a hub-and-spoke system. This means to fly anywhere, we first have to connect in either Denver or Salt Lake City.
Because we have to connect at a hub airport, cancellations are the pits! Most fliers who use a major airport can easily just catch the next flight (or be re-routed) in the event of a cancellation or missed connection. This option is generally not available when you are based out of a small airport. I cannot count how many times the “next available flight” is a few days away. We are no strangers to having to rent a car and drive home.
Higher Ticket Costs
That same hub-and-spoke model and limited flights also means we have to pay higher ticket prices than the average Joe. What is a good deal to us is a rip-off to travelers in other cities.
Not Always Up To Speed
It was only just a few months ago that we received a dedicated TSA Pre-Check line. Until then, some of our TSA screening practices were a bit behind the times. Several other processes we encounter are also a bit dated. Also dated is the actual facility. Small airports don’t have large operating and renovation budgets.
In my early days of flying, I was no stranger to a tiny propeller plane. We called them “vomit comets”. While we have moved up to small jet service, our airport just doesn’t have the passenger volume needed for large planes. Most flights fit somewhere between 20-50 passengers. Anxious fliers find this a bit unnerving.
We have one jet bridge. That’s right – one! And, it’s United’s jet bridge. So, if you are flying on Delta you have to walk outside to get to the plane. That doesn’t seem like a big deal. But, when you are flying in the dead of winter and it’s -20 degrees Fahrenheit with 50mph wind, it is a very big deal!
Dismal Dining Options
Right before security there is a bar that serves limited food options. Its hours of operation are limited. After security, there are vending machines. If you rely on the airport dining options as your pre-flight meal, be prepared to go hungry. We always eat at home before or after our flight.
Would you believe me if I told you that the person who is always working at the ticketing counter also scans the boarding passes at the gate, loads the checked luggage, guides the plane away from the gate and is responsible for de-icing in the winter? Because our airport is so small, with limited flights, staff has to fill multiple roles in order meet full-time employment. Poor things!
Admittedly, we are often jealous of our fellow travelers with better proximity to big airports. On the surface, it seems like the pros outweigh the cons. But, we also know that bigger isn’t always better, even when it comes to airports!
Because there are only a few flights per day and the planes are smaller, the lines are also smaller. This applies to check-in, security and boarding. The same is true at baggage claim.
Less Wait Time
On a good day, when TSA has their act in gear, we can arrive at our airport 20 minutes before boarding starts, pass through security, and have enough time to pack items back in our bags before we start boarding. Granted, we check in online and travel with carry-on bags, but still. There is no need to spend an hour or more sitting around waiting.
Personally, I have found a much better community feel at our small local airport. The staff is friendlier and more willing to help travelers. Their interactions are much more genuine and less corporate scripting. If needed, passengers can easily reach out to the head of the airport and actually get a response!
Generally, we just get a ride to the airport so there is no need to pay for parking. But, for those who do need this option, it is cheaper at our local airport. Parking in the main lot (which is the only lot) costs $5.00 per day. Large airports don’t offer rates this low even at their distant shuttle lots.
Ease Of Access
Speaking of cheap parking, I should mention that the one and only parking lot is directly across the street from the terminal. By walking just a few yards, you are where you need to be. The same is true once inside the small airport. Just walk a little bit and you are where you need to be. Travelers in small airports will never feel lost or disoriented.
If you want a good laugh, once and awhile you’ll get an chuckle from an unintended mistake. Flight attendants have scripts they follow for their announcements. Sometimes, upon arrival the flight attendants forget where we are. They will share the usual information about arriving at the final destination versus finding connecting flight information on the board. It is quite humorous.
While there are obviously a lot of negatives in flying via a small airport, it is clear to see that there are some great benefits too! Hopefully, you learned some things about flying via these small-town gems.