Looking for a cheap flight in or out of Los Angeles?

Try Ontario, Calif., or any number of smaller, secondary airports in the Los Angeles area that offer lower fares, cheaper parking and far less hassle than Los Angeles International Airport. And the trend isn't exclusive to the West Coast -- across the country smaller airports offer similar advantages.

Low-cost and regional carriers that use alternative airports are causing a headache for the big airlines that dominate the major airports. But for consumers, the success of the small carriers and their hubs means one thing: cheaper fares. And the trend is likely to gather steam in the next few years, as small carriers roll out expansion plans.

"The pricing that

JetBlue

(JBLU) - Get Report

offers

from Oakland is just fantastic. If you've flown from San Francisco, you know how monolithic that airport is, walking for miles just to get to your gate," said Phil Carpenter, vice president of marketing for SideStep, an online travel search engine. "In Oakland, you literally park your car and walk to the terminal. It's ironic. I live less than 10 minutes south of San Francisco, but I'll gladly drive to Oakland in order to get a more pleasant flying experience and lower fares."

The low-cost carriers' ability to put downward pressure on fare prices and spur demand by using secondary airports, dubbed the "Southwest Effect," is a strong selling point. According to data from the Department of Transportation, in the third quarter of 2002, the average one-way fare from San Francisco was $212, which was $100 more than the average one-way fare from Oakland.

Indeed, low-cost competition along with other factors has depressed traffic at San Francisco International Airport, where

UAL

(UALAQ)

unit United Airlines maintains a hub. Last year, San Francisco's passenger load fell by 9%, while Oakland International Airport, where JetBlue maintains a west-coast hub, grew by 11.5%. This year, San Francisco expects air travel to come in near 30 million, a level unseen since 1992.

Alternative airports offer other advantages besides cheap fares. In the current climate, where security is a top priority and lines can be lengthy, these airports can be more efficient at processing people because crowds can be smaller. Furthermore, some alternatives to major airports can cut down on hassles getting to the airport, as is the case with Providence's T.F. Green Airport, just 60 miles south of Boston, where a massive reconstruction project has disrupted the already confusing traffic patterns around Logan Airport.

Also, the daily rate to park a car can be much cheaper at an alternative airport. Consider the difference between Los Angeles International Airport and the secondary airports that lie in its shadow. L.A. International charges $30 a day for parking, while Ontario International -- 55 miles away and home to JetBlue -- charges $12 a day. Others are similarly cheap, with Burbank's airport charging $15.45 and Santa Ana's charging $17.

"These are no longer air strips. These are airports, with the added benefit of easier, cheaper parking. They have all of the upside and none of the problems associated with larger airports," said Carpenter.

Expansion Plans

In the next few years, consumers can expect to see more good deals at smaller airports, as low-cost and regional carriers execute expansion plans. JetBlue, which operates out of Long Beach and Ontario, Calif., instead of Los Angeles, plans to add seven more Airbus A320s by the end of 2003 and has ordered an additional 100 regional jets, which will start entering service in mid-2005.

Other carriers have similar plans. Morgan Stanley recently said

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

, which operates from Islip, N.Y., instead of New York City, could add 400 planes -- doubling its fleet -- over the next decade.

Mesa Airlines

(MESA) - Get Report

, which flies for United Airlines in the southwestern part of the U.S., increased its regional jet fleet size by 21 planes in the third quarter and signed agreements to add up to 55 more by the end of 2004.

Ultimately, all this growth has to go somewhere -- and experts say it will be smaller airports, since larger hubs are already nearing maximum capacity.

"When all of those new planes start landing, they have to figure out where they'll go," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com. "And no way New York or Atlanta is going to handle that many more planes; therefore they'll be out there looking for a new hub to spread those cheap airfares further."

To combat the crush of small carriers, the older network names have launched or have plans to start their own low-cost units. Earlier in the year,

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

began offering service on Song, it's low-cost unit, from New York, with plans to ramp up the number of flights through the end of 2003. United Airlines plans to use a similar tactic to help take advantage of cost cuts gained in bankruptcy. But none of them can match the expansion planned by rival regional carriers.

Small Airports Aren't Perfect

Of course, alternative airports aren't always the cheapest. Sometimes, a larger airport can be cheaper, especially between two major hubs dominated by a network carrier. Department of Transportation stats show San Francisco's average one-way fare to Las Vegas was $72, vs. $90 for Oakland. Flights between Boston and Atlanta, where both Delta Air Lines and

AirTran

(AAI)

maintain a huge presence, are much cheaper ($143) than flights from Providence ($188) and Hartford ($211).

Indeed, alternative airports aren't always the ideal solution. Many travelers have no smaller airport options, or alternatives that are so small, underserved or far away that they're not viable. And at a bigger secondary airport like Oakland, the nation's 34th largest and growing, travelers will still encounter crowding and lines.

Since alternative airports tend to be small, there are fewer of the services, amenities and restaurants available at their larger cousins. Also, if something were to go wrong, like a delayed or missed flight, travelers would also have fewer options to get out of town -- some airports are served by as few as three carriers flying limited schedules.

"There's another drawback to mention, too. To the extent that low-cost airlines are growing, they may offer convenient flights if you're going to a major destination," said Con Hitchcock, former executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. "But if you want to go to Fayetteville, Ark., it's tough to get there on anyone but a major carrier. Low-cost carriers have smaller routes and don't have the elaborate route network the majors do."