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Once viewed merely as close-to-home alternatives to LAX, Burbank/Bob Hope, Long Beach, Ontario and Orange County/John Wayne airports offer business and leisure travelers more options than they used to in destinations and departures, thanks to recent trends in the airline industry.
The introduction of long-haul, narrow-body planes has meant these smaller airports, whose runways and/or facilities do not accommodate wide-body jets, can now serve more distant cities, even offering cross-country flights that once were the domain of LAX.
The rise of discount carriers such as Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue, plus newcomers like Delta's Song and United's Ted, have not only decreased fares to many destinations but also have brought new flights to smaller airports, often overlooked when American, United and Delta and other major carriers ruled the skies.
Before August 2001, for example, the Long Beach Airport served 14 commercial flights a day. Then JetBlue Airways arrived, and the airport now has 41 daily commercial flights.
LAX is feeling the effects of the increase at the region's smaller airports. Last year, it served about 55 million passengers, down from 67.3 million passengers at its 2000 peak.
Here are some of the benefits of multiple airports:
* Reduced airfares: The arrival of discount carriers at previously underserved airports has meant more competition, which in turn means lower prices and fewer restrictions. For years, a midweek coach ticket on major carriers between LAX and New York's JFK was as much as $2,000 round-trip compared with as little as $400 round-trip for an advance-purchase ticket that required a Saturday-night stay. Business travelers, the airlines reasoned, would pay for the convenience of buying their tickets at the last minute and to avoid the Saturday-night stay.
JetBlue's arrival gave business travelers an attractive alternative. The new airline began offering midweek round-trip tickets to those cities for $600 and often less. American matched JetBlue, and the two carriers have staged fare wars to attract passengers.
The lure of cheap fares (and particularly fewer restrictions) can attract passengers to an airport 100 or more miles away. Jack Cohen of San Diego, former director of channel sales for Smartdraw.com, an Internet-based provider of business graphics software, saved $600 to $800 round-trip flying out of Long Beach, not San Diego, for his frequent trips to New York. His 100-mile drive to and from Long Beach airport took 75 to 80 minutes outside of rush hour.
* Fewer airport hassles: A smaller, less crowded airport usually means fewer travel hassles, a shorter walk from the parking garage to the check-in counters, a quicker walk to the gate and shorter check-in and security lines. "We have a fairly good track record of processing passengers in a timely way," said Victor J. Gill, director of public affairs and communications for the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, which owns and operates the Burbank airport. The authority has added 40,000 square feet to the terminal, much of it for security processing, going from three narrow security lines to five broad ones.
But there are also disadvantages to smaller airports. Among them:
* Inability to handle crowds: When a popular discount carrier starts serving a city and mainstream carriers increase their service to remain competitive, the older, smaller airports cannot always accommodate the crush of new passengers. Long Beach, for example, served 2.9 million passengers in 2003, a 350% increase from 2000. The major reason: JetBlue made long-neglected Long Beach its Southern California hub.
With such rapid growth, parking garages that were once partly empty, for example, often fill up. Last year, I checked in for my first Long Beach flight to New York uncomfortably close to takeoff time because I couldn't easily find a parking place in the nearly full garage opposite the terminal. Ontario International Airport, which now has 13 airlines, had to open a remote parking lot two blocks away to handle the increase.
* Lack of high-quality food and shops: Most LAX terminals will never win prizes for good food and shops, but smaller terminals usually have even more limited offerings and sometimes limited hours of service. If you're flying a no-meal flight, don't assume that you can find take-out snacks at a small airport, particularly at off-hours.
* More difficult boarding: At the Long Beach and Burbank airports, you don't board your flight via jetways. Passengers walk from the gate area onto the tarmac, and then up the stairs pulled against the plane. In wet weather, the airlines hand out umbrellas, but your carry-on luggage could get soaked. Outdoor boarding is difficult for the elderly, parents with small children or anyone in a wheelchair.
* Flight cancellations can be disruptive: If your flight from LAX to New York, Chicago or San Francisco is canceled, most major carriers can put you on another flight soon after. But if you are flying an airline with limited service at a smaller airport, that next flight might be six or eight hours later, or the next day.
That caution brings a final word of advice: Leave a little earlier for your first flight from an unfamiliar smaller airport. You could get lost along the way. Or you might have underestimated the travel time.