Are Small Airports Worth It?

regional jet

I drove to my hometown from Chicago this week and recalled when my family decided years ago to fly out of O’Hare instead of the small local airport, even though we live ten minutes away from it. Here are some of the reasons we stopped:

Weather Cancellations

Living in the Midwest, weather delays and cancellations are a frequent reality. Which flights get cancelled first? The small regional jet services. It’s not fun to have a multiple-leg trip waylaid because you can’t get to the hub.

Load Cancellations

The only thing worse than weather cancellations were getting to O’Hare on the way home from school or vacation, only to be stranded in Chicago because the short flight home was cancelled because it was too empty. Ended up renting a car and driving home

Fewer Airport Services During Delays

During the times when flights aren’t cancelled, delays still happen. On a vacation to Florida, we were stuck at the airport for 12 hours due to fog, and then the crew timing out. But small airports don’t have lounges and the only cafe was packed since half our flight was in there. We ended up sitting on the floor of the departure area, and even though we only lived ten minutes away, we couldn’t go home because they might board before we made it back.

Trading Layover Time for Commute Time

Typically, most airlines follow a minimum connect time rule of usually an hour between your scheduled inbound arrival and connecting flight departure. The flight from my town to ORD is about 30 minutes, compared to about 2.5 hours to drive to O’Hare directly.

Security Wait Times

Since our local airport only had two gates and one metal detector, there was usually a lineup to get everyone through. No priority lines or PreCheck.

Award Space Considerations

For award tickets, it meant two extra segments that needed to have availability.

Local Economy Considerations

Airports do help local economies, and provide jobs for the community, but when is this just mass subsidization? Flying With Fish puts together (admittedly from a while ago) the case of Ithaca’s Airport lobbying for continued service to Newark, even though other carriers flew to PHL, LGA and DTW and Syracuse was an hour away by car. Other places like Los Alamos get 9 flights a day to Albuquerque (and this is one Cranky flier likes!). Here are some he doesn’t.

Costs Can Be Outrageous

Cost cuts both ways. In many cases, people have shown that you can save money by throwaway ticketing through a hub to a much smaller airport, but when it’s not YOUR airport, good luck. Prices were routinely $200 more than flying out of Chicago directly, which usually more than covered the cost of parking.


I once had a coworker who cited a lot of the reasons above to explain why he drove to O’Hare, even though he lives in Peoria. I tend to avoid small airports for the afforementioned reasons, so clearly I come down on one side of the equation, but I’m sure they must be convenient or necessary in some cases.

Of course, many airports are subsidized as part of the government’s Essential Air Service and Small Community Air Service Development Grants, or are necessary because they are on islands or near vacation destinations supported by visitor or local industry income (::cough:: Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport), but many also are not and are within an hour’s drive other other small airports or large hubs.

I am actually a huge fan of mid-sized airports like Santa Ana (SNA), San Jose (SJC) or Grand Rapids (GRR) because of their convenience, connectivity and lack of hordes of people, but when you get south of 500,000 departures, you have to scratch your head a bit.

Here’s a quick map I put together showing roughly the 50 busiest airports in North America, with a 150mi circle (what we typically drove to O’Hare) drawn around each one of them. Much of the eastern half of the country is covered and nearly all densely populated areas. There’s still several dozen mid-sized airports I left off and far more that don’t get anywhere close to more than 1 or 2 flights a day.

busy airport map



Since many people are home for the holidays, maybe you flew through a small airport to get there. How does your regional airport shape up? If you have the choice, do you drive to the hub? How would air travel be different if there were more or fewer of them? Comment below!

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