A lone Allegiant airplane takes off from the Quad-City International Airport, leaving one white streak against a gray afternoon sky.
An arriving flight has spilled about three dozen people into the baggage claim area, where they quickly recover their luggage.
Travelers pass the airport's gift shop, Paradies, which is stocked with snacks and reading material, along with John Deere green and yellow memorabilia and novelty T-shirts promoting the Quad-Cities and Midwest, declaring, "What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield."
At the airline counters, passengers check their bags through the X-ray machines with little waiting time. They move along seamlessly to the security checkpoints and on to the modern concourse.
For passengers, the process reflects the airport's marketing tagline, "Easier."
For airport leadership, though, these days are tougher.
A decline in passenger numbers has emerged as a critical issue for the airport in Moline, owned and operated by the Rock Island County Metropolitan Airport Authority. Efforts to grow air service and increase passenger numbers are ongoing as leaders look to unravel the community's perceptions — and misperceptions — about airfare and service availability.
At the same time, the airport and its governing board are wrestling with a host of new issues sweeping the regional air-service industry. These regional and small community airports are struggling to retain the same level of service amid airline consolidation, rising oil prices, a looming pilot shortage and a trend that is shifting away from smaller, regional jets to larger aircraft.
"It's a national issue; it really is," said William Swelbar, chief industry strategist for Delta Airport Consultants, an aviation consultancy firm based in Richmond, Virginia. "Small community airports are going through a rough time."
Swelbar is the founder of the Regional Air Service Alliance, or RASA2, a coalition of 80 U.S. airports and state aviation departments, businesses and economic development agencies. Its mission is to raise awareness and educate decision makers about the threats facing the future of community airports, as well as giving a voice to stakeholders.
"Certainly, Quad-Cities is not going to fall off the map, but you could continue to lose service and frequency," Swelbar said. "There are a lot of points on the map that are not going to go away, but they will have less service."
For Bruce Carter, the Quad-City airport's aviation director since 1999, air service "is the No. 1 priority" for the 70-year-old airport.
"The solution is to work with existing carriers to enhance their service, either by getting more planes in the marketplace or more frequency," he said. But just as critical, Carter said, "The region must support the hometown airport."
A shifting equation
As the Quad-City airport tackles its primary concern — air service — other issues plague the industry, overall.
"There are so many headwinds facing the regional side of the business," Swelbar said. "It starts with the pilot-supply issue; that's No. 1.
"Two, is the airframes (aircraft) keep getting bigger and bigger, and not all communities can support the bigger airframe."
Regional jets, which have been serving the Quad-City airport and others like it, are disappearing as it becomes more economical to fly fewer, larger jets.
According to Swelbar, the U.S. airline industry operated 1,210 turboprop aircraft as of 2000. Today, they operate 85. Likewise, carriers operated a total of 2,039 turboprops and regional jets — those with 50 seats or fewer — in 2005. Twelve years later, only 774 turboprops and regional jets are taking flight.
"The smallest planes are being parked," he said.
He lumps many airports across Iowa and Illinois into the community-airport category, including the Quad-Cities, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Waterloo, Peoria and Bloomington.
"Each and every route they choose to fly needs to be profitable on its own," Swelbar said, adding that an airline could carry an unprofitable route in the past if the route ultimately benefited the entire network.
The vice president of Austin-based Trillion Aviation and a consultant for the Quad-City airport, Mike Bown elaborated: "Keep in mind, they're not hotels — they're airplanes. They can move. Airlines are going to put them where they can make the most money."
Eric Frankl, executive director of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, remembers when regional airports were served by turboprop service — the 34-seat aircraft, and, in some cases, 19-seaters.
"Those have all left the market," he said. "Now, the 50-seaters are leaving the market. You might get a 70-seat plane, but you might lose two 50-seaters (in exchange)."
Frankl, who sits on the American Association of Airport Executives board, said regional airports will have to support airline service on 70-seat planes and be connected to a major hub in the future.
"The communities that can't support those are going to struggle," he said.
The latest World Airport Traffic Report, released this month by the Airports Council International (ACI), shows growth is going to the world's mega-hubs as the smaller airports decline. Mega-hubs saw 5.5 percent passenger growth year-over-year in 2016. But a relatively higher proportion of smaller airports — those with fewer than 1 million passengers in 2006 — experienced passenger declines. From 2006 to 2016, more than 27 percent of the smaller airports experienced a loss in traffic, according to the report.
"It is important to highlight that the reason smaller airports remain in operation hinges on the fact that they contribute to the local, social and economic development of their surrounding communities," Angela Gittens, director general of ACI World, said in a news release. "Strategies to ensure their sustainability are important if we are to have a robust aviation system."
Another issue that soon will land at the front door of regional airports is a nationwide pilot shortage.
The big six airlines — Delta, Southwest, American, United, Alaska and Jet Blue — along with cargo carriers FedEx and UPS, project 26,000 pilot retirements between now and 2026, according to Swelbar.
"Typically, the regional pilot (about 17,000 of them today) becomes the mainline pilot tomorrow," he said.
While the major airlines will find their pilots by pulling from the military and the regional airlines, he said, "We're struggling to fill the pipeline of new pilots."
Part of the issue for regional carriers is the increased requirements for pilots, including a four-year degree, plus 1,500 hours of flight time. In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) increased certification requirement for co-pilots, which raised the hour requirement to 1,500, up from 250 hours. The new regulations were put in place after 49 people died in a plane crash near Buffalo, New York. The new requirements went into effect in 2013.
Swelbar fears the regional airport industry will continue to get smaller, saying, "I do not see any magic bullet."
Midwest airport challenges
In 2007, when AirTran Airways was in the Quad-City market, the airport saw its enplaned passengers peak at about 475,000.
Since then, and the departure of AirTran, enplanements have dropped by nearly 150,000, or 30 percent, Bown said. The Moline airport is projected to end 2017 with 325,000 enplaned passengers, which also is a year-over-year decline.
The smaller Midwest markets also have seen airlines shift some of their seat capacity to the larger, metropolitan communities, particularly on the coasts and other population centers.
Des Moines, for example, Bown said, has attracted tech and data companies such as Microsoft, Google and, more recently, Apple.
"Air service chases the economic growth," he said, adding "demand from Des Moines to the West Coast has taken off."
Delta, the Quad-City airport's largest airline, has reduced its seat capacity, system-wide, by more than 10 percent at its Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Salt Lake City hubs over the past decade to aid its growth in Seattle and Los Angeles, Bown added. "Your economy needs to change if you really want to play in this game in the long-term."
Airfares also have risen in the upper-Midwest as airlines work to improve their yields. But as prices have gone up, traffic has gone down, he said. "So the planes aren't as full, but from the airlines' perspective it is a net positive, because revenues have gone up."
As it competes for a piece of the smaller regional pie, the Quad-City airport also is battling leakage. The "leakage" refers to passengers who drive to Chicago airports, rather than booking flights at home.
Bown said the airport began to see leakage increase to Chicago in 2013. A leakage study by Trillion Aviation showed that about 31 percent of the bookings originating in the Quad-Cities flew out of Chicago as of August. That percentage was up from 23 percent in 2013 and 19 percent in 2010.
"In the scheme of things, it's not that bad," he said of the leakage. "There are other markets that see 60 percent of their passengers drive to Chicago."
Overall, the Quad-City airport is retaining 66 percent of its bookings for the catchment area, which includes eastern Iowa and western Illinois.
Some airports that are very close to major hubs can see as much as 80 percent leakage, and airports where leakage to other markets is low "are often isolated," Bown said.
The study also showed that the region only loses 2 percent of its passengers to the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.
"The leakage isn't to Cedar Rapids or Peoria," Carter said. "It's to Chicago and it's all fare-driven."
The data also showed that when low-fare carrier AirTran served the Quad-Cities, the market successfully attracted new passengers from the Cedar Rapids/Coralville/Iowa City corridor.
"When they (AirTran) left the market, you saw a bump-up in Cedar Rapids' traffic, as those people who used to be driving to the Quad-Cities now stayed in their hometown," Bown said. "You had a once-in-a-lifetime where you had a low-fare carrier serving a smaller market."
He described the fleeting AirTran presence as "lightning in a bottle."
The AirTran factor
AirTran fueled the airport to new heights a decade ago. Passenger numbers at the Quad-City airport hit all-time highs as enplanements flirted with the half-million mark from 2007 to 2010. The low fares prompted even the legacy carriers to drop prices to destinations where they competed with AirTran.
The airport's parking lot was bursting with cars — not only from its hometown region, but from the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor and other corners of eastern Iowa. In 2007, the airport hit its best-ever passenger count with 475,248 enplanements, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.
Carter said the influx of passengers led to higher airport revenues from the parking lot to passenger fees, rental cars, concessions and the gift shop.
But 2010 was the last full year AirTran provided hub service to Atlanta. It not only departed the Quad-City market entirely in January 2012 but disappeared from the marketplace when it was swallowed up in 2014 by Southwest Airlines.
"It was surprising you got them and held on to them that long," Bown said of AirTran's 15-year run in the Quad-Cities. "It's tough for a low-fare carrier to serve this size market because of the volume."
But other regional markets where AirTran had operated have not fared as well, posting passenger losses between 30-50 percent.
Traffic, Bown said, has actually returned to normal for the Quad-City market. "You are where you were (before AirTran)," he said.
Although the arrival of low-fare carrier Allegiant to the Quad-City airport has back-filled some of the lost passengers, "They've got their own business plan," Carter said. Allegiant caters more to the leisure traveler with service out of the Quad-Cities two or three times a week. "That's their business model," he said. "And that's what has made them successful."
But the decline not only impacts passenger numbers. It tests the airport's budget, because so much revenue is tied to traffic.
The loss is apparent in the sales volume at the airport's two gift stores. Jana Brau, the longtime local Paradies manager, said she has reduced staff from three full-time employees to one full-time and two part-time associates. In addition, the store inside the terminal now closes at 4:30 p.m., but its CNBC gift shop on the concourse stays open until the last plane arrives.
"It's industry-wide," she said of the decline. "There are very few airports that have growth right now. ... I feel the airport is doing all it can to bring more traffic in. I know they know it's a problem."
Not only was the loss of AirTran a blow to the Quad-City airport, but Lexington's Frankl said the loss of AirTran from the marketplace was big.
"AirTran had a product that could serve small and mid-sized markets, and Southwest doesn't," he said. "The Spirits (Airlines) of the world go from large airport to large airport. Jet Blue is not in the middle of the country. We don't have any (low-fare) options out there."
Carter agreed, saying, "You're not going to get a Frontier, Jet Blue or Spirit here. The only one possible would be Allegiant."
The result, Frankl said: "I compete with Bruce and the Quad-City airport for the same airlines; that same crew."
According to Bown, airline consolidation has slashed controls over the industry's available seats. In 1978, 20 airlines shared the market. In 2000, it was 11. But today, four — Delta, United, Southwest and American — control 83 percent of the industry's seats, he said. Another result is that airlines are more profitable.
"They've gotten rid of the excess capacity," Bown said. "The airline industry has transformed, and it is going to continue to be very profit driven. Smaller airports did great when there were lots of competitors."
Bown said the Quad-City airport has other problems.
"(The) bigger issue is: You've got to look at economic growth," he said. "Long-term economic growth contributes to air service and air-traffic growth."
An eastern Iowa native, Bown said the Quad-Cities' non-farm payrolls have remained essentially flat since 1990.
According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, the Quad-Cities' non-farm payrolls have grown from 165,667 employees in 1990 to 183,100 in 2016.
Airport Commissioner Molly Foley said the airport can only do so much.
"It's not just an airport problem," she said. "It's an economic problem of our region. If we can't grow our region's economy, or just continue to see slow growth, we're not going to grow our air service in any significant way."
She wants conversations to shift away from AirTran and a concern for competition from Cedar Rapids and Peoria.
"Chicago is our biggest leakage," she said. "We're not losing people to Cedar Rapids and Peoria. We're not gaining from Cedar Rapids and Peoria as we once did, because we don't have that low fare."
Foley sees positive signs, including the appointment of a few new commissioners to the airport authority, saying, "We appreciate the service of others, but it's nice to have some new blood on the commission."
Carter said business travel also is a concern.
"I know for a fact companies are cutting back on travel, due to the economy," he said, adding that the airport has just begun to see a post-recession uptick. And airports cannot rely on the leisure traveler for growth, he added.
Bown agreed: "You need more people that want to travel regularly. Essentially, that is business people, not the people who go on vacation twice a year. I'm talking people who travel each week for business."
While growing air service is the top priority, Carter said, the second is growing non-aeronautical development around the airport, including at the former Bud's Skyline and Flick's properties and its industrial park.
"We're competing against other public bodies," he said, pointing to the city of Moline in particular.
Carter said some of the recent retail developments Moline has had along John Deere Road and at SouthPark Mall could have located at the former Flick's and Bud's site, which the airport has prepared for development.
"I feel that is the No. 1 retail property for us," he said. "I realize it's hard to compete against areas that have high population exposure. But the airport's a good location."
Jim Bohnsack, the airport authority chairman, said the airport needs to address some of the perceptions the community has about the airport's activity, affordability and connectivity.
"There has to be wrong perceptions that it's like a ghost town, like SouthPark," he said. "People don't realize planes only come in at certain times. There are 340,000 people who fly through here each year. We're still the third-largest airport in Illinois."
The Air Service Committee, led by the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, provides a connection between the airport and the business community. About two dozen leaders from the chamber, business, the public sector and transportation agencies sit on the committee to keep updated on the airport.
Jason Gordon, the chamber's vice president of public affairs, reiterated that economic growth will grow air service.
"We are an economy that is, in large part, made up of manufacturing," he said. "If you juxtapose that with a market like Des Moines, where you see more jobs in technology, insurance and finance ... those types of industries are more likely to be traveling than our industries.
"I think the business community is seeing the importance of a healthy, vibrant airport and wants to do what it can to make sure we have a healthy, vibrant airport."
Among the strongest of airport advocates is Quad-City River Bandits owner Dave Heller, chairman of the Air Service Committee.
"We want the airport to grow and become bigger and offer more opportunities to travel," he said, adding that the committee is focused on, "making sure the airport hears the voice of the business community, letting the airport know what the business community is interested in and (determining) where we can be helpful advocates."
For example, he said, business leaders want more service to the west, including expanded service to Denver. They also have pitched other possible destinations and hubs, including Houston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. He believes the previous Washington flight was not "a fair try" because of the undesirable flight times.
"We believe, given the opportunity to take flights to more places at reasonable times, people will use them," Heller said. "Businesses will fly them. Making sure the people who work at John Deere don't have to drive to Chicago to get where they're going is an important thing. We don't want to see what happened to Caterpillar in Peoria happen to John Deere."
Likewise, he said, a "vibrant, thriving airport" is an economic development tool for convincing businesses to locate or expand in the Quad-Cities.
"I think the mood is: We're going to grow this airport one step at a time," said Heller, whose baseball team regularly uses the airport. "We are not expecting double-digit growth overnight."