WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — For as long as airlines have been crossing the oceans, airline passengers have had to go to big city airports to catch their overseas flights.
So users of the nation’s 53rd-busiest airport, in this small town in the suburbs of Hartford, were surprised this fall when Aer Lingus, the flag carrier of Ireland, began flights to Europe.
“It puts us into a different class of airport having that,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the airport, Bradley International. “There are not a whole lot of airports this size that have trans-Atlantic service. It put us on the map.”
Warwick, R.I., with an even smaller airport, may soon have the same bragging rights. T. F. Green Airport, just outside Providence and about 90 miles from Bradley, is negotiating for European flights with the low-cost carrier Norwegian.
“Smaller airports are the next coming thing,” said Bjorn Kjos, chief executive of Norwegian, which is also talking to Stewart International Airport in Orange County, N.Y., about starting European-bound flights.
In 2016, a record 18,000 city pairs were connected by air, according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. “We’ve seen the addition of 700 new routes this year,” said Brian Pearce, chief economist and director with the association. The growth has been particularly noticeable in the United States, Mr. Pearce said, but was also significant in Europe and Asia.
While many of the new routes, like All Nippon Airways’ Tokyo-Mexico City flights and Air India’s Delhi-Madrid offering, linked large metropolitan areas, the growth in midsize city connections disrupted long-set patterns. John Grant, a senior analyst with OAG, an aviation data provider, said the new interest in smaller airports has several roots, among them a boom in the number of air travelers, new low-cost carriers offering long-haul flights and congestion at the biggest airports.
“Many markets are already saturated in terms of frequency,” Mr. Grant said. “There are only so many times you can fly into New York and London a day.”
New technology also plays a role as huge airliners, with 400 or more seats, are eclipsed in popularity by aircraft of a more moderate size.
“Apart from a few large markets, large aircraft could only be flown when they had a feed of passengers from other markets that would then travel onwards to intercontinental destinations,” said Floris de Haan, head of aviation practice for Ortec, a consulting firm based in the Netherlands.
In the last five years, the companies manufacturing the two biggest airliners, the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380, have introduced smaller, more fuel-efficient long- and medium-range airplanes that are just right for connecting smaller cities.
The 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was critical to Norwegian’s decision to begin low-cost flights between gateways in the United States and Norway in 2013. The airline has configured the aircraft to carry 291 to 344 passengers. Mr. Kjos says his airline is now relying on delivery of four even smaller Boeing 737 Max aircraft, with 180 seats, to expand its route map.
“The Max, that’s a single aisle that can fly on routes to secondary cities,” Mr. Kjos said of the plane and others like it with 100 to 230 seats. “You will see a lot of low fares and a new segment of people start flying.”
Airlines find more savings on the ground as well. Layover hotel rates for flight crews, landing fees and fuel prices are usually lower at smaller airports. For passengers, the costs of parking, car rentals and other travel services are usually less than at major airports.
There is also a reduction in the hassle factor. Security lines are more manageable, and immigration lines on arrival at major airports can sometimes take more than an hour to clear. Avoiding that is a benefit nearly on par with eliminating the long drive to New York or Boston.
“There was a lot of business heading into Europe having to drive two to three hours,” said Mike Rutter, chief commercial officer for Aer Lingus. That was an important consideration, Mr. Rutter said, because 80 percent of the traffic the airline would need for a profitable route would have to come from Hartford-area businesses. Officials at the airport told Aer Lingus that 23 area companies were spending $40 million on trans-Atlantic travel each year.
Mr. Dillon, of Bradley airport, said those figures were crucial, not just for Aer Lingus but for other airlines talking to the airport, including Norwegian.
As the Aer Lingus flights began this fall, a number of travelers in the terminal stopped to examine the large emerald green poster on display. “Aer Lingus, Your Gateway to Europe,” it read, listing European capitals, including Milan and Paris, that are reachable after a change of planes in Dublin.
Hartford does not have the same cachet for Europeans flying to the United States. Katherine Burke of Ireland, who visits her adult daughter in Connecticut twice a year, usually travels through New York and then makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Milford. In November, she arrived at Bradley knowing little about the area, except that she would be at her daughter’s house in less than an hour.
“Most U.S. cities if you say the name to British people, they will think of something famous associated with that place,” said Ralph Anker, the founding editor and chief analyst of anna.aero, a British website specializing in airline routes. “But certainly, in the U.K., Hartford really doesn’t create any instant associations.”
To address that challenge, Bradley Airport has budgeted about $3.6 million for a three-year marketing effort, while the State of Connecticut has given Aer Lingus revenue guarantees of up to $4.5 million a year for two years while it establishes its route.
Smaller airports frequently offer these kinds of economic incentives to attract airlines. Norwegian, WOW Air of Iceland and other carriers have also received them.
Even with financial help, though, one factor remains critical. “Most people don’t fly for the pleasure of flying,” said Mr. Pearce, the airline economist. “It’s to go on holiday or to do business. An airline has to think that people are going to fly between these two cities for a reason.”
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