Smaller airports fit many travelers just right
Posted: January 12th, 2011 09:56 AM CDT Charisse Jones USA TODAY They may not offer as many flights or destinations as their big counterparts, but for many frequent fliers, the nation's smaller regional airports provide a more pleasant travel experience. Parking is close. You can go through security and hit your gate in the time it might take to return a rental car at a crowded hub. And at many spots, you can sit back and enjoy the view -- from the fountains at Knoxville's airport in Tennessee, to the faux sequoia grove at Fresno's Yosemite International in California. "I absolutely like those smaller airports better," says Deanne Sullivan who works for a consulting firm and lives in Stockton, Calif. "If you fly out of a smaller airport, the gate agents know you; the ticket-counter staff knows you. You just get a little bit more personal service. They're not as rushed." USA TODAY asked its panel of frequent-flying "Road Warriors," who log millions of miles each year, mostly for business, about their favorite regional airports and what makes them special. Airports in Appleton, Wis.; Erie, Pa.; Richmond, Va.; Green Bay, Wis.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Santa Barbara, Calif., were among many to make the grade. In contrast to larger airports that often serve as a crossroads for passengers making myriad connections, the nation's hundreds of regional airports tend to be where many travelers begin or end their journeys. "Both kinds of airports are very critical to the entire system," says Sean Broderick, spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives. Though larger airports have more flights, destinations and amenities such as restaurants, a "regional airport can be your best friend," Broderick says. "From a business (traveler's) perspective, their perfect airport is probably a regional airport that has service to anywhere they want to go." Perks plus convenience Regional airlines, which fly to big airports as well as small, carried nearly 160 million passengers in 2009, according to Kelly Murphy, spokeswoman for the Regional Airline Association. One in every four fliers travels on a regional carrier, and 75% of U.S. communities have commercial service only through them. Many who have spent time at smaller airports say the best offer large-airport perks, such as free Internet access, but with nearby parking and more personal customer service. "My favorite regional is Harrisburg, Pa.," says Avi Rosenthal, a vice president of technology for an energy management company. He says his hometown Harrisburg airport offers flights to major hubs such as Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. "It is a great airport," he says. "Small enough to guarantee no lines but large enough that I can get to over eight gateway airports from there." Kyle Bischoff, a field systems manager based in Chattanooga, prefers to fly out of his local airport rather than trekking to its more bustling counterparts in Nashville and Atlanta. "While (Nashville) and (Atlanta) give more options, flying in and out of (Chattanooga) is really easy," he says. "I can arrive at the airport 45 minutes before my flight and still make it onboard with no problems." Jeff Hansen, an IT manager who lives in Omaha, doesn't get to the Fort Smith, Ark., airport as often as he used to, but he still thinks highly of it. "It is of course small, and this lends some ... advantages as the crowds are light, (and) the people friendly," says Hansen, noting that there are flights from Fort Smith to hub cities throughout the Midwest. "You won't find 'regular airport seating.' Instead, they have La-Z-Boy recliners, couches, hardwood coffee tables and anything else to make you think you're sitting in someone's living room." Hansen wasn't the only frequent flier to home in on the home-like aspects found at some small airports. Steve Gadless says that he once spent roughly four hours at DuBois Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, when the plane he was to travel on had a mechanical delay. "I just planted myself in the snack bar and had some of the best homemade meatloaf ever while I watched them fix the plane right outside the window," he says. Gadless also likes the food and feel of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa. "In DuBois and Labrobe, it's not an impersonal big giant food court," says Gadless, a clinical specialist in surgical equipment who was recently laid off and lives in Monmouth Junction, N.J. "It feels like a family diner. I almost purposely get there early just to have lunch." Finding a soothing spot Jennifer Welch, a flight attendant who splits her time between Kihei, Hawaii, and Hillsborough, Calif., says she appreciates the free Internet access and "quiet, comfortable work areas" at airports in Appleton and Green Bay, Wis. Sullivan, the consultant from Stockton, has several regional favorites. One is the airport in Knoxville. She's seen rocking chairs at other airports, but she says sitting in one while gazing out the windows, or passing the Knoxville airport's fountains, can calm the harried traveler. "It's very soothing," she says. "It kind of lessens the stress of being in a long security line."