Confronted with changes in industry economics and what seems to be the inevitable demise of small, and possibly larger, regional jets—governments and small communities in the U.S. may soon face tough choices over the future of scheduled service at small regional airports.

“I think we’re coming to a tipping point where we’re going to have to decide what the real needs are,” Kelly Johnson, airport director for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, said at the recent FAA Aviation Forecast Conference in Washington.

The biggest problem for smaller airports is that 37- to 50-seat regional jets—and 50-seaters in particular—seem to be on their way out, the victims of high jet fuel prices that have made them unprofitable in many markets.

U.S. regional carriers contend they can change the economics with lower lease rates or reduced costs from maintenance providers to keep the 50-seater viable in some markets. But some also believe the smaller RJs will disappear completely from the U.S. market: The FAA does not foresee any still flying by 2032; long-time consultant Michael Boyd at Boyd Group International thinks they all will be gone by 2019. Barring a turboprop resurgence or a new-generation small jet, that will leave many communities with nothing.

An Aviation Week analysis finds 43 airports in the continental U.S. where the largest aircraft used for scheduled service top out at 37 to 50 seats, which makes those airports vulnerable. If Boyd’s prediction that rising fuel prices eventually will topple 70-seat jets from many markets proves prophetic, 45 more airports come into play.

The analysis excludes Alaska and Hawaii, where population density and geography require an inordinate amount of small-aircraft service. It also excludes airports where the largest aircraft have 10 or fewer seats.

The consensus among Kelly and the other three panelists at the FAA conference was that there are too many small airports. For example, Johnson noted that there is an airport 80 miles south of her facility with about eight flights a day. Joplin Regional Airport in Missouri, just north of her airport across the state line, has service subsidized by the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

The potential demise of scheduled service at a host of airports could force communities and federal, state and local governments to make some difficult decisions regarding how much they should loosen rules or open their pocketbooks to keep or regain service.

“If you have a community that cannot support viable air service, you’re going to have to write the checks to help support it,” and the federal government will not be able to help as much as in years past, says Skip Miller, executive director of the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, who also sat on the panel.

Federal rules limit how long an airport can offer an incentive, such as waiving or reducing the landing fee, to two years to any individual carrier. The federal government might have to lift that cap to help the communities keep their service, the panelists said.

Alternatively, the federal government could boost spending on EAS—but congressional sentiment has leaned toward reducing funding for the subsidy, not increasing it. Airports also can get help from the federal government’s Small Community Air Service Development Program, which can award 40 grants per year and had $15 million in funding in fiscal 2011. State goverments or local businesses could try to help.

Boyd Group International, which helps small airports make pitches for airline service, issued a new report this month in which it talks about irreversible economic realities for many of those airports. The consultancy estimates at least 100 airports will lose scheduled service, including many that today have more than 100,000 origin-and-destination passengers per year--victims not only of aircraft economics, but also major-airline strategies that are more focused on maximizing revenue flows to and through their global alliances.

There are some markets that have enough local traffic to maintain strong local service, particularly where the local industry is healthy and focused, the Boyd report says. But the group believes many other communities would be better served funneling their traffic into regional airport gateways, with a good road system serving as spokes to those hubs.

“The sooner communities work together, the better chance of assuring access in the future,” the report says.

That is easier said than done, however.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t think it will happen. Nobody wants to give up their airport,” says FAA conference panelist Elaine Roberts, president and CEO of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority. She notes that airports are economic engines in their communities, and people “will fight tooth and toenails” to keep them.

The regional gateway concept has been kicked around before, Miller says. But there was too much resistance.

But what if it is not a choice? Boyd does not think it will happen willingly either—no airport manager can make that argument and keep his or her job, he says. But he believes the solution will be forced upon the communities. Miller acknowledges this has happened before, noting in particular an instance in the 1980s where service consolidated at South Bend Airport in Indiana after several nearby airports lost scheduled flights. Boyd’s report cites statistics showing that airport capacity in Central Illinois already has been shifting to Central Illinois Airport at Bloomington-Normal over the past six years.

“We told airport managers to keep your mouth shut—you’re going to get killed. Let economics do it,” Boyd says.