Airline Cutbacks Create Snags for Travelers, Small Airports

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have created big headaches for air travelers, turning routine business trip into full-blown ordeals. 

In small-town airports across the country, passengers are facing less flexibility and longer layovers as many of the nation's 95 commuter airlines scale back service in the aftermath of the attacks. The cuts are especially hard on small communities where commuters are the only airline option. 

"A connection to a hub is a connection to the world,'' said David Clark, a spokesman for United Express, which has cut routes considerably. "If we can get someone to (Los Angeles International) or Salt Lake, you can fly anywhere on the planet.'' 

At Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport in Washington, Horizon Air cut 25 percent of its flights, including a morning departure to Seattle. 

That means even fewer passengers at an airport whose modest terminal has a tiny waiting area, a single ticket counter, and two rental car agencies - one of which doubles as a snack bar. At 11:30 a.m. on a recent day, there was not a single passenger in the building. 

Horizon is the airport's only carrier, and the elimination of the morning flight means a Pullman businessman with a noon meeting in Seattle now has only one morning flight option, the 6:55 a.m. departure. If the meeting lasts more than an hour, the earliest return to Pullman would be at 5:55 p.m. A meeting that lasts all afternoon means that passenger would not arrive back in Pullman until 11:05 p.m., more than 16 hours after the initial departure. 

The story is similar in Farmington, N.M., a town of about 40,000 people that has lost six of the two dozen flights per day to hubs like Albuquerque, Phoenix and Denver. 

The attacks on New York and Washington have had a devastating impact on airlines, an industry that was already struggling before the disaster. 

Although a $15 billion federal bailout is helping the industry get back on its feet, U.S. airlines have typically slashed schedules by 20 percent and announced layoffs exceeding 100,000.

Commuter airlines, which receive less attention than major carriers, are major lifelines for travelers in much of the nation. 

One of every eight domestic passengers in the United States last year flew on a commuter airliner. Such flights are the only source of scheduled service at 476 of the nation's 686 airports, according to the Regional Airline Association, based in Washington, D.C. 

"They are critically important to the economic viability of small-town America,'' said Debby McElroy, president of the association. "The runway has replaced Main Street as the economic driver for small communities.'' 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.