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NEWS Last modified on April 14, 2016

A flying visit to five of the US's smallest airports

It is all too easy to forget about the world's smaller airports and the important roles they play when thinking about airports and air travel, writes William Hansen.

After all, for many of us, the word airport conjures up images of giant hub facilities like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – the world's busiest gateway handling over 100 million passengers yearly – or high profile airports like Chicago O’Hare.

But the United States is home to 550 commercial airports, the smallest of which served only about 2,500 embarking passengers last year.

In fact, 127 US airports served fewer than 10,000 embarking passengers in 2014, a stark contrast with Hartsfield-Jackson, which served 46.6 million during the same timeframe.

Many of the country’s smaller airports are situated in western states or in Alaska, whose vast distances and sparse population base make air travel a necessity.
Some of these airports have had historic lives as military facilities or testing stations.

Today, many can be financially viable only thanks to the federal government’s Essential Air Program, which subsidises air routes that are seen as vital to select small communities, but that do not serve enough passengers to pay for themselves.

For these smaller facilities especially, cost is a primary consideration in keeping them operational and sustainable. Airport managers and airline representatives have to consider many ways of holding infrastructure and operations costs low.

With traditional airport building materials rising in cost – which makes even needed upgrades and expansion prohibitively expensive – airport officials could be well-served by looking to fabric structures to serve as shelters, baggage handling areas, and aircraft hangars.

Below is a snapshot look at five of the nation’s smallest airports, from East Coast to West.

Trenton-Mercer Airport, Trenton, New Jersey

Located four miles northwest of Trenton, NJ, Trenton-Mercer Airport is a county-owned, joint civil–military, public airport. It serves one scheduled airline – Frontier Air—as well as corporate and private, general aviation. 

The airport boasts two runways and two gates, and between June 2014 and May 2015, served 794,000 passengers travelling in and out of New Jersey. 

Parking is $2/hour or $8/day, and the Sky Lounge restaurant offers a perfect viewing spot to watch the (decidedly uncrowded) air traffic.

 Morgantown Municipal Airport, Morgantown, West Virginia

Located four miles from Morgantown, WV, the Morgantown Municipal Airport offers quick, convenient service to the Washington DC metropolitan area.

In addition to the availability of general aviation, Silver Airways operates three daily round-trip flights to Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, for United Express. The airline uses the SAAB-340B passenger plane and boasts a new luggage cart available for passenger use. 

The airport features a single runway and a single restaurant, although the airport has recently petitioned the FAA to lengthen the runway, so it can accommodate larger aircraft.

Arcata-Eureka Airport, McKinleyville, California

Located in redwood country, nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco, Arcata-Eureka Airport is a public airport that was initially built during WWII to test defogging systems.

It boasts two asphalt runways and currently serves SkyWest as its only commercial air carrier.

SkyWest operates three or four daily departures to San Francisco International Airport using Canadair CRJ-200 and CRJ-700 regional jet aircraft.

The airport serves around 150,000 passengers per year. It is a popular gateway airport for travellers wishing to view the unmatched natural beauty in redwood territory in Northern California.

Garden City Regional Airport, Garden City, Kansas

Serving slightly over 26,000 embarking passengers per year, the Garden City Regional Airport is situated roughly 220 miles west of Wichita.

It maintains two grooved concrete runways and is used mostly for general aviation, though it operates two daily non-stop flights to Dallas-Fort Worth on American Eagle Airlines, thanks to subsidies from a federal programme known as the Essential Air Service Program.

During WWII, the United States Army Air Forces used the Garden City airport for training, so it had runways long enough to accommodate in-flight passenger jets that were forced to land during the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Dawson Community Airport, Glendive, Montana
Official FAA records identify Dawson Community Airport as the smallest airport in the US, serving only 2,519 embarking passengers in 2014.

 This was actually an enormous increase from the previous year, which saw only 703 passengers.

The airport is served by one commercial airline – Cape Air – which is subsidised by the federal Essential Air Service programme. Cape Air currently operates two daily round-trip flights, at $52 per seat, to Billings, MT, 220 miles west.

 A red brick building that could easily be mistaken for an historic gas station, the Dawson Community Airport is a natural jumping off point for visitors taking in the natural beauty and recreational parks in the Montana badlands.
• William Hansen works for Alaska Structures. For more information about the company visit http://alaskastructures.com/portfolio-view/aviation/

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