In praise of small, charming regional airports.

Almost Every American Airport Has Become a Hellscape. Except These Ones.

Almost Every American Airport Has Become a Hellscape. Except These Ones.

The cities of today and tomorrow.
Sept. 7 2017 4:55 PM

Smaller Is Better

In praise of calm, low-fuss regional airports.

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Mark Nerys

Like so many Americans, particularly ones who experience both the U.S. air system and transit in the New York City area, I have come to dread out-of-town travel.

Just to get home, tri-staters must endure a series of Herculean labors. Whether you’re taking the train, stomaching an expensive car service, or self-parking in a garage that’s practically in another time zone, getting to and from LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark can take an hour or three hours, depending on traffic, construction, or weather. And even once you arrive, there are mob scenes, long and hostile TSA lines, half-mile walks through the terminals, chaotic boarding procedures, and the dreaded 45-minute taxi, which inevitably ends with “We’re No. 16 for takeoff.” When my ticket reads JFK, LGA, or EWR, I now resort to mindfulness exercises.

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But there is one airport code that inspires calm when I travel: HPN. That’s the identifier for the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York. Sitting on 700 acres 30 miles north of New York City, it’s not exactly hidden or undiscovered. The 99th busiest airport in America, it manages a few dozen flights daily and handled 755,000 departing passengers in April (which is about what JFK does in two days). For those fortunate enough to use it, HPN—like so many small, charming airports—offers the illusion that the American air transit system is tidier and chiller than it actually is.

In business and transport, scale is generally an advantage, leading to lower costs, more economic efficiency, and a better user experience. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that smaller airports—like the ones I’ve come to love in Lansing, Michigan; Ithaca, New York; Portland, Maine; Charleston, South Carolina; and Bismarck, North Dakota—offer a much higher level of functionality. And Westchester, while sharing all the advantages of other small airports, has a huge factor working in its favor: It’s close to where lots of people live and runs direct flights to many huge population centers.

The experience of flying out of Westchester is the polar opposite of using one of the region’s big three. The drive there from my home in Connecticut is short and peaceful. Once off the Merritt Parkway, you head up King Street, which is one of the few streets in the country in which the houses on the eastern side have an address in one state while the houses on the western side have an address in another. Cruise past the ultra-posh Brunswick School, take a hard left, carve 270 degrees of a roundabout, and you’re there. And driving is a cinch, since the parking garage is about 50 feet from the terminal.

The terminal itself is a throwback. Though the area is wealthy, the airport has no luxury retailers, no outposts of celebrity chefs, no airline lounges. It basically has the mien of a bus stop. HPN has two TSA lines and only six gates, but things move very quickly. Before security there’s an ATM and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Tucked away on the second floor is the Purchase Country Diner, whose ambitions eclipse at pancakes, BLTs, and club sandwiches. This airport may lack many of the amenities that the big airports have developed to reduce the misery of flying—fancy stores, a spa, gourmet food. But those can only take the edge off a miserable experience. What a lot of travelers really crave is less wasted time and more dignity.

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The reason HPN works is precisely because it doesn’t scale—or, more accurately, can’t scale. Since the airport is located in an area where property values are high and the residents have political clout, there are sharp limits on the level of activity at the airport: Just 240 passengers may move through the terminal each hour, both arriving and departing. According to the Westchester Journal News, HPN allows just four departures or landings every 30 minutes.

Think about that. At any given time, only two flights are being prepared for boarding and takeoff. But don’t mistake the low volume for irrelevance. Four of the nation’s big airlines service the airport. American ferries passengers to Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami. Delta takes customers to Atlanta and Detroit. United connects to its major hub at Chicago’s O’Hare. And JetBlue offers service to five airports in Florida. There are also two smaller regional operations that service Boston, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard.

There may not be much competition among airlines at Westchester. But the reality is that the airlines operating here are competing against the operations of all the airlines at the other three large airports in the region. (Somehow, the cost of flying to on short notice from Westchester to Washington on American is pretty much the same as the Delta shuttle from LaGuardia.)

So you can get from Westchester to a lot of the places you can get to from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark and at roughly the same price. But the hassle is much lower. You don’t have to arrive 90 minutes early; it usually it takes just 10 minutes from the time you park your car to the time you’re through security. The staff and crews are much less stressed, precisely because they’re handling a maximum of two departures and two arrivals per hour. When a plane arrives at Westchester, you never sit on the runway until some other plane leaves the gate. You breeze right through the terminal and are on your way to you next destination in five minutes.

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Sure, things do go wrong. In fiscal year 2016, 1.7 percent of the flights from Westchester were canceled, while 76 percent left on time, and 73 percent arrived on time. The level and frequency of delays is roughly the same at Westchester as it is at the region’s bigger airports. (At LaGuardia, 2.9 percent of flights were canceled.) But it doesn’t feel that way. That’s partly because at the big airports, airlines often build in 30 minutes for taxiing and sitting on the runway. Which means that at LaGuardia and JFK, even a normal flight can seem like it is delayed.

Of course, in an era when businesses and people are flocking to the largest cities, small, provincial airports are finding it difficult to compete. But smaller airports that are in relatively close proximity to large metroplexes are finding more fans among passengers and airlines that appreciate the smaller degree of hassle. Many frequent travelers who live near big cities have their go-to small places. T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, which is emerging as an alternative to Boston’s Logan, has added several flights from Norwegian Air and Frontier. Many Angelenos traumatized by the scrum at LAX flock to the low-key Long Beach Airport, which has added JetBlue and Southwest flights. At the Colorado Springs airport, which connects Denver-area residents to a growing number of markets, passenger traffic in June was up 22 percent from last year.

The appeal of these places is obvious: The entire experience—the parking, the security lines, the boarding lines—is much less dehumanizing. The best thing an airport can do for you is move you into and out of it as quickly as possible. It helps when there’s less airport in the first place.

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