Spreading Wings Across America

Thanks to airline deregulation, small towns have more air service than ever before.


Elliot "Bucky" Buckingham, an engineer (and, via his wife, Marianne, a distant relative of mine), lives on 40 acres of gorgeous rolling countryside in Vermont. Commercial dairying has died out there, but people keep a few animals as a small income supplement or as a hobby, or just to keep the verdant grass under control. The rainfall feeds fresh, bubbling brooks and is sufficient to support magnificent beech and oaks as well as the maples common to the whole northeast United States.

Bucky, as everyone calls him, is one of America's leading designers of gears—not automotive gears, but gears for all other kinds of machines. His father wrote the basic manuals on gear design in the 1920s, and Bucky has taken them over, modernizing the manuals in line with changing metal alloys and needs. He lives just outside Springfield (population 10,000), which has two quite substantial machine and tool factories, but his work as a free-lance gear consultant comes from all over America. Equipped with an Apple II computer, drafting tables, typewriter, and telephone, he works in an office that, overlooking the woods, covers the whole top floor of a second house he built for renting.

Until two years ago the Buckinghams used to have two cars. One of them spent a lot of time 100 miles south of Springfield, in the parking lot of the airport at Hartford, Connecticut, when Bucky was in Chicago or St. Louis or San Diego or wherever new gear designs were needed. Now he has sold his second car.

With airline deregulation, the commuter air service out of Springfield has dramatically improved. There are now one-hour flights four times a day to and from Boston. From Hartford, where he used to drive, Bucky could not fly direct to anywhere west of the Mississippi. From Boston, which was too far to drive to—but which now is an excellent quick commuter flight—Bucky can fly direct to anywhere in the United States.

Bucky's experience seems to be typical. A study by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), "Developments in the Deregulated Airlines Industry," by David Graham and Daniel Kaplan, shows conclusively that service to small communities has greatly improved in the United States with the abandonment of CAB controls over airline routes and charges. Some 132 communities are recorded as having lost regular jet airline service since deregulation, but, says the report, as these "airlines have moved out, the commuter (airlines) have moved in with the small aircraft suited to these markets. On average the commuter airlines are supplying these communities more service with lower subsidy costs than was provided by the certificated airlines." Flight frequency has improved overall. Commuter traffic grew 20 percent in 1978 and 29 percent in 1979—the small planes are definitely accepted by travelers.

Airline routing has changed significantly since the days of license controls over flight routes. The routing that has emerged under free competition, the CAB report notes, has accommodated travelers' needs better than the planning process involved in licensing ever managed to do. Under competition, travelers have fewer connections to make and fewer switches between airlines. There are more direct flights from origin to destination.

Airline routing is described using bicycle-wheel imagery: an airport is a hub and the routes are spokes coming into the hub. The CAB divides airports into four categories: large-, medium-, and small-sized hubs and nonhubs (places with only one or two routes connecting them). Prior to deregulation, "nonhubs"—or the smallest communities—had been actually losing some service; but that has been reversed. The most recent pattern is for large and small hubs to gain business at the expense of medium hubs. Deregulation in the United States occurred simultaneously with a greater than doubling of fuel prices and coincided first with economic growth, then with recession; so cause and effect are difficult to establish precisely.

But in this report the CAB is insistent that smaller communities have benefited most from deregulation. In an elaborate study that simulated actual trips on a computer, travel convenience between the four different-sized airports before and after deregulation was measured. Taking into account frequency of flights, flight availabilities, flight times, and waiting times for connections, the study revealed that travel convenience between all large hubs and between large and medium hubs remained essentially unchanged. Travel convenience from medium to small hubs declined somewhat. But convenience improved significantly in three categories of hub traffic—medium to medium, large to small, and small to small. Nonhub to nonhub travel improved insignificantly. More small-hub traffic is going direct to big cities, less to intermediate-sized airports.

All this is particularly interesting because, prior to deregulation in the United States, the most frequently voiced fear was that under competition service to small communities would decline. Experience has proved precisely the opposite: small communities have benefited even more than all others! It turns out that the small communities had been the most ill-served by bureaucratic planning of routes and absence of competition.

Services are "more integrated" now with competition, the CAB study shows, and this is of most benefit to those in small communities making complex trips. "Fewer trips today require connections than in 1978. And of the trips that require connections, a greater share are made with a single airline than before.…smaller communities are getting more direct service to their ultimate destination."

Or, to put it more personally, Bucky's experience is probably being replicated in small settlements all across the United States.

Peter Samuel is the US manager of Australian Consolidated Press. He writes a weekly column and occasional articles for ACP's news magazine, the Bulletin.