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Airports use perks to compete for travelers

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When planning a trip, it's a given to pick up loyalty miles and points from the airline, hotel and car rental company. But travelers might be missing out on valuable rewards from another source: The airport.

More airports are adding their own incentives for frequent travelers, including discounted parking, exclusive lounges and bonus airline miles on in-terminal purchases. It's a way for airports to compete against each other as airline consolidation shifts routes and raises prices, said Dean Headley, a professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating study.

"Airlines offer the service that airports ultimately have to keep up with," he said, "And let's face it; fliers want convenience, price and schedule. If they can get a better deal by driving an hour, they'll do it."

Perks are more prevalent among small regional airports, which often come up short in such comparisons. "We are seeing a lot of local airports lose traffic to larger airports where there's more service, and therefore lower fares," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. "Loyalty programs are the next step in enticing passengers to use their facilities."

Approaches vary. In July, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank,Calif., launched an airportwide loyalty program through affiliate Thanks Again.Travelers who register an existing debit or credit card with the program automatically earn extra miles with their choice of partner airlines when they use the card at airport retailers.

Since its debut in December 2010, Thanks Again has developed 43 airportwide programs, and has participating merchants in another 128 U.S. airports, said Chief Executive Marc Ellis. "Airports are certainly interested in encouraging passengers to stay and engage," he said.

Florida's Jacksonville International Airport has a "frequent parker program" which, for a $20 fee, gets participants discounts at airport businesses and accrues points on lot fees that can be redeemed for free parking. Gainesville Regional Airport, also in Florida, offers members of its free Ultimate Road Warrior Club perks including a separate lounge.

But like airline loyalty, favoring one airport over another isn't always a sound bet. Larger hubs are often a better bet for cheap fares that outstrip the value of rewards, said Hobica. Avoiding connections is also a smart move amid increasing flight delays and cancellations. During the first half of 2013, 79.2 percent of flights left on time, down from 84.26 percent in the same period of 2012, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Ditching the local airport in favor of a bigger hub could have far-reaching consequences, though, said Headley. Airlines may scale back or eliminate service if there aren't enough passengers at a given airport.

"As a consumer, if you're thinking about altering your flying habits, think about how much you're willing to support the availability of local air service," he said. "Would you rather pay an extra $40 or $50 per ticket to make sure that airline is there when you need them?"

By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.

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