Second of a five-part series

When the Interstate highway system was begun in the 1950s, a common fear was that regional cultures and unique local communities that were bypassed would be forever lost due to the vastly increased commerce between distant cities.

Those fears have been fulfilled in many respects on the nation’s roads in the decades since, and something very much like that phenomenon is happening in America’s skies today.

A May 2013 paper, “Trends and Market Forces Shaping Small Community Air Service in the United States,” published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's International Center for Air Transportation, describes extensive changes in the industry that are driven by an esoteric management technique known as “capacity discipline,” or “right-gauging.”

A cousin to the just-in-time inventory approach to supply management, capacity discipline is why flying while sitting beside an empty seat has become a distant memory for the vast majority of commercial airline travelers.

After years of aggressively expanding into new markets, airlines now schedule fewer flights in smaller planes or purposely overbook flights on larger aircraft to ensure that as many seats in the cabin as possible are occupied on every flight. Doing so is essential to maintaining the profitability that keeps the airplanes flying.

According to MIT’s Michael Wittman and William Swelbar, the 29 large-hub airports — defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as having at least one percent of the nation’s total annual commercial air traffic — saw airlines cancel 8.8 percent of their scheduled flights from those facilities between 2007 and last year.

But at the other 109 medium- and small-hub airports, the number of flights plunged 21.3 percent during the same period.

As a result, hundreds of cities like Colorado Springs, Colo., Memphis, Tenn., and Oklahoma City, with airports accounting for between 0.25 percent and one percent of traffic, have lost huge portions of the air connectivity they once took for granted.

Connections to other places from those cities are becoming more difficult, often require awkward scheduling compromises and frequently are much more expensive.

Oklahoma City travel agent Kathy Dorough, who with Toni Caldwell owns Break-Away Travel, remembers a time years ago when Will Rogers International Airport was a much busier place.

“We basically have American, United, Delta and Southwest,” she said. “Back in the Dark Ages, we used to also have Braniff and Continental, American, Pan-Am, Delta, Northwest, Eastern, TWA, but they have all gone by the wayside,” she said.

Ironically, Oklahoma City has long been home to one of the FAA’s major facilities, the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, which, among much else, trains the nation’s air traffic controllers.

More than 5,600 federal employees work at Monroney, as well as hundreds more contractors and subcontractors, making the facility one of Oklahoma City’s 10 largest employers.

But things have been tough in recent years for Will Rogers officials as airlines have increasingly concentrated their operations around the large-hubs.

Asked about changes at Will Rogers, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett diplomatically observed, “I would say the planes seem a little more crowded, and the opportunities to squeeze additional dollars from the travelers seem evident. I am a businessman myself, it is probably necessary. It seems like a really tough business.”

Even though Oklahoma City is not a large-hub, Cornett said, “I can get to almost anywhere I want to go in a direct flight, but there might only be one flight a day, so you have to kind of work it, to know the system and the best way out of Oklahoma City.”

Dallas is a 30-minute connecting flight or a three-hour drive south from Oklahoma City, Cornett said. “You can either get there from here, or you have to get to Dallas, and from there you can go anywhere in the world,” he said.

Karen Carney, marketing manager for Will Rogers, said the airport’s connectivity is improving in some respects. United recently added a Cleveland flight, and the airport is one of the few nonhub cities to gain new routes.

“We did lose Kansas City from Southwest,” she said. Southwest was using Kansas City to feed passengers to its Chicago Midway International Airport hub, but the interim stop became unnecessary when Southwest added some direct flights from Oklahoma City to Midway.

On the down side, though, Carney pointed to what happened in Memphis after Delta acquired Northwest Airlines.

Memphis had been a hub for Northwest, but as Delta incorporated Northwest routes into its system, it has been drawing down its flights in and out of Memphis, including service with Oklahoma City.

“The airlines are pulling away from the point-to-point services. They are all about making sure that their routes are profitable. If a route is not profitable, or a route just isn’t making it, then they are not going to just keep it,” Carney said.

Unfortunately, when airlines make such decisions, it’s not just their passengers who feel the effects.

Tomorrow: Colorado Springs Airport faces adversity, gets entrepreneurial

Neil McCabe is a Washington-based journalist who covers national politics and public policy issues.