Struggles of a Small California Airport

Nationwide, small airports are cutting flights making it tricky for travelers.

Sept. 9, 2008— -- Looking for a quick weekend away, a holiday trip back home or a good deal on a flight to attend a friend's wedding? Good luck: This fall, finding an escape route will not be easy.

Just ask residents of the college town of San Luis Obispo, Calif. The airlines servicing the town's airport have recently made some difficult business decisions and as a result, passengers may have problems finding a flight.

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Soon, travelers who rely on American Eagle for the short flight to Los Angeles will need to make other plans. After more then 30 years of service, American will stop flights to San Luis Obispo in November. Delta, too, stopped flying from San Luis Obispo to Salt Lake City starting Sept. 1, which will leave just two airlines with regular service to the city.

"We knew that they were going to downsize, but to have them go down completely, it was a real, real shock," said San Luis Obispo's airport manager Klaasje Nairne about American Eagle's decision.

"That Salt Lake City flight is critical to us," said Mike Cannon, a San Luis Obispo businessman with the engineering firm Cannon Associates. "We got to get to a major transportation hub for this place to be accessible."

But driving to those hubs instead of flying will prove difficult.

"It would be about four hours to San Francisco, three hours to Los Angeles, maybe even more depending on the traffic," said passenger Judie Green, who recently used the San Luis Obispo airport to fly to San Francisco and catch a flight to Boston. "When you want to make connections through San Francisco or Los Angeles, it's really important to have a local community airport. It's served this community well, and I think it's really important to continue it."

A Broader Look at Flight Cuts

What's happening in San Luis Obispo is happening throughout the country -- and is especially hitting travelers looking to get to and from the nation's smaller towns.

Starting this month and continuing throughout the fall, U.S. airlines are slashing flights as a survival measure against high fuel prices. By year's end, domestic passengers will have an estimated 2,500 fewer commercial flights to choose from each day. More than 200 airports will have fewer flights by the end of the year, and another 97 airports will lose air service entirely, according to the Air Transport Association.

"If you're looking at cities that have lost some service, you pretty much can throw a dart at the map of the country and you will find one," said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International.

Now, even with fuel prices dropping again, airport officials are uncertain whether flights that depart from their airports will ever return.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," Principato said. "People don't know if they're going to have air service, what kind of air service. Is it going to be competitive? Can I afford it?"

In San Luis Obispo alone, Nairne said the airport will lose nearly 40 percent of its passenger seats.

"It's not a matter of not having enough passengers," Nairne said. "Planes leave here about 90 percent full. But with oil prices the way they are, even that wasn't enough to convince all the airlines to stay."

Now, fewer flights will mean higher prices.

"Fares are going to go up," Principato said. "If you haven't bought your Thanksgiving or Christmas tickets yet, you're going to find they're a little more expensive than they were last year."

A Close Look at the Impact on Local Economies

With fewer flights in and out of town, local economies from Butte, Mont., to San Luis Obispo will take a hit.

At Digital West Networks Inc., a provider of Internet-based services for business in San Luis Obispo, president Tim Williams said he needs the airport to run a good business.

"Because we work remotely, we work efficiently, we work over the Internet, we do need that air transportation to get to face-to-face with our customers," he said.

Cannon, too, said the loss of five flights in San Luis Obispo "basically cut off a blood flow into the region."

"We now have offices in Santa Monica, offices in Denver, and we need to be able to get our employees, our clients back and forth," he said.

Passengers like Jeff Davidson, who recently flew from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco and then onto Seattle, agree that access is key to the development of their community.

"I think it's very important for a community like San Luis Obispo, which is trying to attract new businesses and high-ech industries and college professors and doctors and lawyers that need to be able to get places," Davidson said.

ABC News' Ray Homer contributed to this report.