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Airlines find new airports to absorb expected '80s growth

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Are the nation's airports ready for twofold increase in air travelers expected during the 1980s? Handful of big-city airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare, New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia, and Washington's National, are already operating at close to capacity. Some say they can grow no more. Asked what the possibilities are for expansion of the two New York airports, Ed Franzetti, a spokesman for the New York Metropolitan Regional Airport Authority minces no words: "Absolutely none."

Accordingly, airports in nearby cities -- such as Newark, N.J., (for New York) and Baltimore (for Washington) -- are playing a new and growing role in the airline route picture.

"Our expansion tank is Newark -- we direct any new carriers there," Mr. Franzetti says.

Similarly, many coast-to-coast air passengers making a midway stop to change planes now are more apt to touch down in Memphis, Kansas City, Denver, or St. Louis than Chicago. For Trans World Airlines, St. Louis has replaced Chicago as the line's busiest route center and base for expansion. Eastern Airlines also moved its western division from Chicago to St. Louis last year.

"A lot of medium-sized hubs in the Midwest are growing," confirms Theana Kastens of the Airport Operators Council International in Washington. "Memphis in many ways is a key -- it's already receiving a lot of overflow from Chicago and is developing as one of the major connecting points."

The Memphis airport recently doubled the number of gates available to airlines for arrivals and departures. United Airlines has since selected Memphis as the hub of its Southern operations and has quadrupled daily departures from that city.Overall passenger traffic at the airport grew 12 percent last year, according to Willard Fletcher, president of the Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority.

While no city wants to lose the economic impact of increased air traffic, passengers on connecting flights are rarely on the ground long enough to make much of an economic difference.

Until recently, connecting passengers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport accounted for 60 percent of all traffic. Now it's closer to 50 percent, and "we hope to bring it down even further," says Robert Sampson, United Airlines vice-president and head of the Airline Industry Advisory Committee overseeing O'Hare future development.

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