It’s no secret that people hate to fly. The lines are long, the seats are packed, and luggage delays (or damage) are practically inevitable.
Airports know this, but they don’t have a lot of direct influence over the flying experience. Those long lines at security? That’s the TSA. Cramped seats on the plane? That’s the airline, of course. Delays? Those are usually due to weather or mechanical problems, which aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault - though horribly outdated computer systems can sometimes be to blame.
But that hasn’t stopped airports from trying to improve life for passengers. We worked with Rapid City Regional Airport several years ago on some programs designed to do that. Some of them were fairly straightforward product improvements: they were one of the first airports to start offering free wifi, for instance, which is a big deal for travelers. As the ad guys, we helped to get the word out on these improvements, along with the built-in advantages that come with being a small regional airport: inexpensive and easy parking, short security lines, a quick commute, and an uncrowded terminal.
On the downside, small airports often struggle with complaints about high airfares. Commercial airlines have become dependent on high load factors, and small metropolitan areas don’t have the necessary volume. That makes it difficult for the big airlines to offer competitive airfares, and it makes it almost impossible for budget carriers like Southwest and Spirit to turn a profit.
But there is a low-cost airline that’s been finding some success in smaller markets over the past few years. Boutique Air is based in San Francisco, but they’ve found a niche operating out of rural communities that are subsidized by the Essential Air Service program. They fly from small airports all over the country, including Chadron, Nebraska (population 5,787) and Moab, Utah (population 5,046).
But the airline is going beyond low fares (which are less than $100 one-way on some routes). They’re marketing themselves more like a charter service, which makes some sense: their fleet of swiss-built planes can’t seat more than nine passengers, giving the whole experience an intimate, private-plane feel. In fact, the planes are so small that there are no flight attendants. The co-pilot gives the safety demonstration and serves drinks before takeoff. Passengers even have the opportunity to get up and talk to the pilots during the flight - an experience almost unthinkable in post-9/11 America.
It’s a fascinating business model, and it goes to show that even small, rural markets sometimes get the benefits of innovation in established industries.