Boutique airports and airlines: Why smaller is better

We spend a lot of time celebrating aviation's brashest achievements -- biggest, fastest, longest.And ...

Posted: Jan 7, 2019 12:42 PM
Updated: Jan 7, 2019 12:42 PM

We spend a lot of time celebrating aviation's brashest achievements -- biggest, fastest, longest.

And when it comes to investing and improving, airlines often focus on the premium customer: offering larger beds and better first-class cabins.

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But for most of us, the everyday reality of travel is economy and short-haul, and that can often mean crowds, delays and a whole heap of wasted time.

There are some regional airlines and airports making efforts to improve the short-haul experience, however, and to bring some of the humanity -- and sanity — back to travel.

Here are three of them:

The hometown airline

Massachusetts-based Cape Air operates up to 550 flights a day around North America, using a 90-strong fleet of 11-seater Cessna planes, with no route longer than 90 minutes.

"Cape Air is an employee-owned company," Cape Air CEO and founder Dan Wolf tells CNN's Paula Newton. "Everybody is treated like they are an individual person. [That's] the nice thing about flying in an airplane with relatively few people."

Security lines are never longer than nine people -- because that's the maximum number of passengers on the plane.

And, adds Wolf, although usually when a passenger gets on board "the window shade comes down, the television comes on," when you fly on a little Cessna, "you're part of the experience of flying."

What could be a dull commute becomes an opportunity to enjoy incredible panoramic views over the East Coast and connect with your fellow passengers.

Fares range from $29 to $299, and the airline offers a bulk commuter pass at a discounted rate.

Kevin O'Shea, a local businessman who regularly flies Cape Air, says, "It feels like a hometown airline. You arrive at the airport, everyone knows your name; It sort of brings some humanity back to air travel which we don't seem to have these days."

The boutique airport

At Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, there are no shops, limited dining options, and it's the only airport in the country to have a curfew.

But, says airport manager Peter Scherrer, that's because it's "an arrival-destination airport. People don't want to stay here, they want to go on their flight and they want to exit. This is not a mall and we like it that way."

At Westchester, the emphasis is on speed and convenience. Once you exit your flight, you're right at the baggage carousel, and the rental car desk is just a few steps away.

"Time is very important," says Scherrer. "If you look at the departure lines, [people are] on cell phones, they're trying to do things, but they're waiting for the flight. So if they can reduce their time waiting in line, they can get here a little later than they would at a larger airport."

Turnaround time is a neat 45 minutes because "an airplane doesn't make money if it's sitting on the ground," adds Scherrer.

As for the curfew, "we have an agreement with the FAA and the airlines that limits the commercial service here. It's a very important agreement for the county of Westchester and the residents here. You don't want this turning into a large commercial airport."

Around 1.5 million passengers pass through Westchester each year. Compare that to Atlanta, the world's busiest airport, which handles 100 million passengers a year, and you can see why small is beautiful.

The savvy Scandinavian

"More than 90% of our passengers fly short haul," says Rickard Gustafson, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines. It constitutes "75% of our revenue."

Which is why SAS is currently upgrading its short-haul fleet by replacing one-third of its aircraft with A320neos by 2020.

But, he explains, "if the flight is only for an hour, you cannot really have a very different offerings on board in terms of seat pitch or sizes. You have to compete on other things."

So SAS offers free tea and coffee, and prepares a menu of healthy, locally sourced food.

However, adds Gustafson, "The experience on board is not the most crucial part of the travel experience."

His airline is also investing in making things easier on the ground: fast-track capacity, lounge upgrades and digital tools to assist the passenger, beginning with the booking process and continuing right through the journey.

Globally, more people are flying than ever before -- and the majority of that is on flights of fewer than six hours.

Airlines and airports which ignore the quality of their short-haul, economy experience are missing out on a big slice of the pie.

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