3/14/2013 - More than a year ago, officials celebrated the opening of Ray Wieczorek Drive, also known as the airport access road, in Manchester. Officials praised the new 1.75-mile roadway as opening a new gateway to the airport for northern Massachusetts, and improving access for the entire Everett Turnpike corridor.
But despite the new roadway, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport has seen a major reduction in passenger activity, a reduction that began several years ago. What gives? A number of things, it turns out.
With or without the access road, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport has one undeniable advantage over Logan International Airport in Boston: travelers out of Manchester do not need to deal with the hassle of driving into Boston. But even that advantage is lessening. Boston has narrowed the accessibility gap with the completion of the Big Dig providing direct access to the airport. Now, Logan is beating the Manchester airport in terms of low-cost flight options, and, subsequently, travelers from the Manchester airport’s market are willing to make the trek to Boston.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Manchester and T.F. Green Airport in Providence offered the only low-cost carrier service in New England in the form of Southwest Airlines. Of course, Southwest is still in operation, as are a host of other low-cost carriers, nearly all of which now operate out of Boston as well. New England is now widely recognized as the most competitive region for airline services in the country, said Thomas Malafronte, assistant director of air service development and marketing at the Manchester airport.
“Boston Logan has attracted new low-cost airlines and regained some of the passengers it had lost to airports like Manchester and Providence,” Malafronte said.
Malafronte counts six low-cost carriers that have begun serving Boston in the last decade.
“Not only did we provide exceptional airline services to our primary and secondary market areas, we also successfully attracted a significant influx of Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont air travelers who wanted to fly Southwest or avoid the Big Dig,” Malafronte said.
But travelers have shifted gears.
“Unfortunately, it creates significant additional challenges for Manchester’s ongoing airline recruitment efforts when the data they collect shows that people from our market are willing to drive to Boston for flights,” Malafronte said. “We’ve had numerous airline schedule planners ask, ‘Why should I put more service in Manchester if I’m already getting your air travelers in Boston?’”
Searching for flights out of Logan and Manchester to the same destinations revealed a few things. Logan, not surprisingly, has more flights; it’s also a much larger airport. Logan offers far more non-stop flights. Flights, in general, are cheaper out of Logan. Travel durations — that is, from the time the first flight leaves the airport to the time a traveler arrives at his or her destination — are typically shorter out of Boston, even when excluding non-stop flights.
Airports have no control over several factors, including which airlines serve them, destinations they serve, service frequency, type of aircraft or ticket pricing. Airline mergers have hurt the Manchester airport significantly. In the last decade, the airport has lost 24 daily departures due to mergers, bankruptcies and acquisitions, Malafronte said.
Jet fuel is another piece of the puzzle. Fuel represents more than 40 percent of an airline’s operating cost and is the major driver of most air service allocation decisions, Malafronte said. New Hampshire’s geographic location and costly winter operations present additional challenges for making certain destinations profitable. Aircraft burn a significant amount of jet fuel, while reducing daily utilization, when serving medium and long-haul routes, Malafronte said.
“Airlines need to ensure a certain level of revenue to make sure those flights are profitable,” Malafronte said. “There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Airlines have long been willing to forego profits in major markets like Boston in order to maintain ‘market share’ in the region.
But smaller regional airports like Manchester aren’t viewed in the same light. All flights at smaller regional airports need to produce the desired profit margin or aircraft will be reassigned to another route.”
While not having to drive into Boston isn’t necessarily quantifiable, parking costs are. The Manchester airport still has the leg up there. In Boston, patrons will pay, at the cheapest rate, $18 per day, and as much as $108 per week. In Manchester, patrons will pay as little as $10 per day and $70 per week.
For people living locally, pickups and dropoffs are generally less of a headache at Manchester, so they might avoid parking costs altogether. A person flying out of Boston who doesn’t want to pay for parking and can’t get a ride might take the bus, which is an additional expense — but even factoring that in, it might still be cheaper to fly out of Boston.
Where to from here?
That’s the same question airport officials ask themselves. How can a regional airport be successful given the challenges? The answer isn’t complex, but that doesn’t make it any easier: work hard to promote the airport.
Malafronte said officials need to maintain low operating costs for airlines, ensure sufficient infrastructure and aggressively market the airport to airlines and travelers. Beyond that, officials need to strengthen relationships with airline network planning departments, develop strategic advertising and marketing campaigns, and maximize community service opportunities, such as customer appreciation day or the airport’s Wings for Autism program.
More broadly speaking, Malafronte said the airport must consider new business opportunities, such as hotel and real estate development.
“And finally, recognize that the airline industry and competitive landscape in New England have changed dramatically, so we as a community must support the air service that we have in order to expand it in the future,” Malafronte said.
An eye toward optimism
It’s not all doom and gloom over at the airport. Here’s a look at some positives.
Southwest Airlines brought back a seasonal flight to Ft. Lauderdale in November, two months earlier than last year. That flight will operate through mid-April.
Southwest Airlines will also bring back a non-stop flight to Las Vegas beginning June 2. That flight will operate at least through the airline’s summer schedule.
Southwest Airlines will increase aircraft size on popular routes, increasing seating capacity from 137 or 143 seats to 175 seats.
Delta Air Lines began service to New York’s LaGuardia Airport in March 2012 with one daily roundtrip flight. During the past year, that service has grown to four daily roundtrip flights.
US Airways recently announced it is adding a fourth daily roundtrip flight to Washington, D.C., and a second daily roundtrip flight to Charlotte, N.C., in April.