America's Cheapest and Most Expensive Airports

"Why is my airport so expensive?" I hear this question all the time, and here's the answer. The airfare you purchase to fly from your airport is expensive because the facility is A) Small and a fairly long drive to the nearest larger airport, or B) There's little or no competition, especially low-cost airline competition, or C) both.

Let's take a look at the latest list of "most expensive" airports in the U.S., as defined by the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS); the numbers crunchers there base this list on a 10 percent sample of airline tickets sold during July, August and September of 2009.

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Top Three Most Expensive Airports:

1. Huntsville, Ala.

2. Grand Rapids, Mich.

3. Savannah, Ga.

The BTS has the complete list and lots more fun numbers, but let's dissect these three, shall we? And keep reading for tips on how to avoid these most expensive airports. And yes, we will get to the cheapest airports shortly.

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Now while Huntsville, Grand Rapids and Savannah are hardly villages (Grand Rapids has a population of close to 200,000, Savannah's at 132,000 with Grand Rapids falls somewhere in between), all three are small towns in airport parlance.

These are regional airports and passengers who patronize them pay a penalty. Fly out of Huntsville, Grand Rapids, Savannah, Knoxville, Tenn., or any number of smaller airports and you'll pay an average of $50 to $150 more per roundtrip ticket than you would for flights out of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Regional airports are also notorious for lack of competition, but you can find this problem at larger facilities too: for years, Cincinnati was one of the nation's most expensive airports and it drove Midwestern fliers to distraction. As a result, more passengers got in their cars and drove to other airports. Dayton and even Indianapolis began siphoning off Cincinnati passengers, simply because airline tickets were cheaper.

This is where the lack of competition comes in, or we can use the word "monopoly" if you like: no, Delta isn't the only airline out of Cincinnati, but it's long been a Delta hub devoid of real rivals and it charged accordingly. Eventually, though, Delta presumably tired of losing business and in early 2009, the carrier slashed prices so Cincinnati no longer tops the most expensive list (and here's another comment I hear all the time: "What took them so long?").

In fact, Cincinnati showed the biggest drop in airfares among all airports during the past third quarter compared with the third quarter of 2008. Minneapolis and Milwaukee followed close behind in this price drop derby.

Minneapolis and Milwaukee? Yes, and you can credit the "Southwest effect." When the low-cost carrier sets its sights on a new town, airfare wars are sure to follow. And it helps if there's another scrappy contender in the mix, such as AirTran in Milwaukee. Bottom line: a win for passengers.

So what about the airports with the lowest average airfares in the third quarter of last year? Take a look:

Top Three Cheapest Airports:

1. Atlantic City, N.J.

2. Orlando, Fla.

3. Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

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