Small cities in 25 states — almost 100 communities in all — have lost commercial air service in the past two years for a variety of reasons, among them airline mergers, fuel costs, the expense of serving smaller markets and cuts in government aid to airlines that serve small communities.

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Santa Fe, N.M., lost its airline service a year ago, and its tourism-centered economy has felt the pinch. “Either people come through a different airport or they plain don’t come,” said the airport’s manager, Jim Montman.

In Moses Lake, Wash., without an airline for two years, travelers have a choice of driving about 180 miles to Seattle or about 105 miles to Spokane, assuming they can get through roads occasionally closed by snow.

Small cities in 25 states — almost 100 communities in all — have lost commercial air service in the past two years for a variety of reasons, among them airline mergers, fuel costs, the expense of serving smaller markets and cuts in government aid to airlines that serve small communities.

And many of those cities’ economies are suffering. While it is difficult to figure out how much of the lost revenue in the small cities is tied to lost commercial air service and how much is the result of the country’s economic downturn, it is clear the loss of air service has hurt. In much of the nation, airlines represent more than a convenience.

When a city loses commercial air service — finding itself hundreds of miles from the closest airport — it gives up tourist dollars, airport revenue and income that otherwise would spread to Main Street.

Because airplanes connect businesses with customers, partners, suppliers and consultants, remote communities without service are less likely to attract or retain businesses.

“Air travel is the way business does business,” said Michael Boggs, vice president of the air-service group at the consultancy Mead & Hunt. “If businesses in those communities have to have air service, they’re probably going to move away. They could drive to airports to get service. But, ultimately, if a business relies on air service, it’s going to have to relocate at some point.”

Areas become more remote

Loss of air service also may drive away homegrown talent, accelerating the marginalization of remote areas.

“Rail service doesn’t go there,” said Greg Carboy, an aviation lawyer in Dallas. “Bus service doesn’t. Now people have to drive hundreds of miles to get there. The businessperson is not going to be rushing out to that community because they don’t have the ability to get there. The Internet isn’t the be-all and end-all.”

Small percentage of market

While small markets represent more than 80 percent of air fields in the continental U.S., they transport fewer than 11 percent of passengers, Boggs said. So as airlines look to cut costs, it makes business sense to focus on larger markets and longer trips and to cut routes.

“As airlines try to make themselves more efficient, they’ve made it more inefficient for us,” said Dev O’Reilly, president and chief executive of RollMaster Software in Lynn Haven, Fla. “We’re in a service business. You call, you write, but there is nothing like face-to-face.”

The service cuts have hit business travelers harder than leisure travelers, because business travelers usually want the quickest, most convenient way to get to their destination. Vacationers, on the other hand, will drive several hours to save money.

The long-term effect on a community is hard to predict because losses like this have not been common before this recession. Ultimately, analysts said, they expect some small communities to get air service back after the economy rebounds — but at higher fares and with fewer flights.

“There is an immediate effect on tourism, but a longer-term economic effect,” said Bjorn Hanson, associate professor at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. “They never reach the long-term growth trend that would’ve been achieved without the reduction in air capacity. Typically, the bar is reset at a lower level.”

Two hours from Santa Barbara and four from Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Calif., lost some, but not all, air service in November.

“We could not be a 21st-century community and do all the things we want to do in high-tech and communications, in food safety and computers and software, if we didn’t have air service,” said David Garth, president and chief executive of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

In New Mexico, the Santa Fe Municipal Airport contributed an estimated $54 million a year to the city when it had commercial air service, said Montman, the airport’s manager.

Beyond missed revenue

Without it, he said, “Some will use Albuquerque as their base, get their cars in Albuquerque, stay in hotels in Albuquerque,” 63 miles away. “Everyone who does, that means lost revenue for Santa Fe.”

The effect extends beyond missed revenue. Scott Berman, a hospitality analyst and principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Miami, said that when banks considered loans in certain areas, they examined commercial air service. If an airline has withdrawn or reduced capacity, he said, it can raise questions about business prospects.

Airports without commercial service do not necessarily close. They just rely more heavily on cargo, corporate aviation, flight training and recreational flights.

Sometimes those without service can lure it back. Moses Lake, for instance, is trying to convince SkyWest Airlines to come in.

While local officials said Moses Lake is growing because of low energy costs that are attractive to manufacturers, affordable housing and a good work force, they acknowledged that lack of air service is a liability.

“It gets frustrating to operate a business because you don’t know if you can have your meeting or not,” said Craig Baldwin, executive manager for the Port of Moses Lake.

For companies, the isolation represents a significant cost of doing business. “People in large cities don’t understand how dependent rural communities are,” said Lon Topaz, the energy-resources manager at REC Silicon in Moses Lake, whose parent company, REC Group, is based in Oslo. “It’s worth a bundle to us to have air service back.”

When executives from headquarters in Norway visit, Topaz added, “Those last couple of hundred miles from Seattle take almost as long to get here as from Oslo.”