As the airline industry retracts, keeping the airports busy is anything but child’s play.

In the loosest sense, the major airlines of America have responded to market shifts in much the same way as department stores. Over the last quarter century, both industries have experienced one consolidation after another. Department stores were considerably more abundant; with rare exceptions (Sears and J.C. Penney come to mind), most of the retailers in our malls had a regional orientation, with fewer than 100 locations scattered across between five and ten states. In many respects, the quantity of department stores made their widespread implosion much quieter, at least until it became obvious in the last few years what a devastating impact this was having on the traditional suburban mall throughout the country. Airline companies, fewer in number and generally national (or international) in scale, generated quite a bit of press, when, for example, United united with Continental, when Delta absorbed Northwest, or when American took US Airways under its wing.

Beyond consolidation, it may seem like these two industries have little in common. But the shrinkage of both airlines and department stores down to a few key players is influencing the portals by which consumers customarily engaged with them as businesses. We’ve witnessed numerous examples of the struggling and dead malls left in the wake of all those closed department stores. Ironically, for airports the impact has been a bit subtler. No international airport in the United States has closed that I’m aware of, but many of the second-tier airports (those smaller than the top 10% in terms of overall enplanements or departures) have lost a considerable amount of their mojo. I’ve written multiple times about the cavernous hallways of the most heavily affected airports; as an example, facing persistent emptiness, United had to close an entire concourse after the acquisition of Continental Airlines, for which Cleveland-Hopkins International (CLE) was a hub. Now, a metro area of nearly 3 million sees only a little over a dozen direct flights on a typical day.

The best-managed airports have sought new methods of organizing their excess real estate.IMG_8801Indianapolis International (IND) was never on the scale of CLE, though it did serve as the primary home to budget and charter American Trans Air until its 2008 bankruptcy. The Weir Cook Terminal itself, constructed in 2008 near the site of the previous terminal, won considerable regional press for its design and aesthetics. Year after year, it has ranked #1 in North America for the quality of its service. Now almost a decade old, it still looks great.IMG_8800But, even though it reached a peak of 8.7 million passengers in 2017, this still feels like a modest clientele for 44 gates. And 44 gates isn’t particularly large—probably what one would classify a third-tier airport. No wonder it looks so pristine; it hasn’t exactly endured that much wear and tear.

And, even amidst metro Indianapolis’ steady growth and a recovery in passengers from the low in 2013, it’s still oversized. How do we know?emptiness at Indianapolis International AirportA play area in the distance for bored and fidgety children. Up close, it’s obvious what has happened.IMG_8803The benches in the back block what used to be another gate. The Indianapolis Airport Authority determined at this point that a free guest amenity is more important. Obviously, this could change at a moment’s notice: it doesn’t appear that the airport’s leadership invested heavily in this recreational respite. But it broadly echoes the expansive stretches of unused check-in counters I observed a few years earlier. Emptiness throughout. Not surprisingly, from my typical visits between one and three times per year, the retail turnaround at IND seems unusually high.

I don’t foresee this airport closing down a concourse any time soon; by most metrics the airport is still performing better than most of its peers. But any arrivals after 8pm force the passengers to trudge through vacant halls to the baggage claim. Such emptiness undermines any attempt to welcome new guests. But what else can the Airport Authority do? Even though airports leave their customers captive as they await their flights, the realms of airlines and retailers achieve a Venn diagram’s relations, with the fortified marketplace of an airport serving as the diagram’s intersection. If airports contend with this emptiness for another decade, we’re likely to see more gates get blocked off. Possibly with vending machines. To compensate for the closed restaurants.

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13 thoughts on “As the airline industry retracts, keeping the airports busy is anything but child’s play.

  1. AvatarChris B

    Thoughtful piece. One of the other notable signs of excess capacity at IND is that there is a TSA checkpoint apiece for the A and B wings of the terminal, but sometimes only one operates.

    Thing is, transportation facilities have to be designed for peaks, and for 30-50 years out. So it’s not a total surprise that in the first decade or two they seem lightly used.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Indeed, and IND may eventually grow into its capacity. But larger airports than IND (and slightly larger metros) like CLE and CVG are now suffering an even greater excess in capacity, due largely to the loss of such airlines as Continental and Northwest. Nearly twice as many major carriers were operating during the design and engineering for IND. Passenger air traffic may need to increase at least 150% before IND feels “right sized”.

      Reply
  2. AvatarGabe

    What’s so funny is I saw this post, but I did not look to see who posted it at first. After reading the article, I thought, “I should share this with Eric!” LOL

    Reply
  3. AvatarGreg Brown

    I would say that they have become more efficient and leverage hubs better. It’s a good thing as prices have dropped for tickets and increase capacity!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Good for us, isn’t it?! Not necessarily good for the airport authorities though, who often struggle to lease the restaurant/retail space…a lot like malls these days. A few years ago, I recalled how IND, after being built, had vowed to preserve a bunch of art installations and not get oversaturated with advertising. These days, art installations (like the one going the down escalator to baggage claim) are replaced by ad screens, and poster ad displays are on any remaining piece of wall that they can find–or even suspended from the ceiling. http://www.urbanindy.com/2014/12/24/from-art-to-ads-commodifying-space-at-the-indy-airport/

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Agreed…it gets top ratings every year for customer service. I’m sure some of its ease comes from the fact that it was designed on the basis of learning from previous mistakes made in the layout of other airports. It also doesn’t hurt that its not a hub for anything and gets pretty light use compared to peer city airports like Charlotte, or even Kansas City and Nashville.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        I remember reading somewhere that it was the first completely new terminal designed after 9/11. That probably contributes to the feel of “ease of use”.

        Reply
  4. AvatarBrian M

    My hometown, Fort Wayne, renamed its airport from “Baer Field” to “Fort Wayne International”. I guess because one flight to Windsor, Ontario makes you “International”? LOL

    Reply
    1. AvatarChris B

      After ATA went bust, the only international flights from IND for many years were to Toronto. Just recently service to Paris started, and there are low cost carriers with seasonal flights to the Caribbean. Plus service to SFO, which many Hoosiers consider a foreign place. 🙂

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

        These days, sadly, I’m suspecting an increasing number of Americans at large consider SFO a foreign place.

        Brian, I’m pretty sure the only necessary standard to qualify as an international airport is a non-chartered, regularly scheduled flight outside the U.S. If that flight goes to Windsor once a month, that’s good enough.

        Reply

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