87% Manchester air traffic increase seen by 2020

A federal study released Wednesday projects that New Hampshire’s largest airport could see passenger traffic increase by 87 percent in the next decade.

The New England Regional Airport System Plan, a mammoth 12-year study conducted by the New England Airport Coalition, forecasts that the number of travelers flying out of Manchester Boston Regional Airport will rise from 3.78 million in 2004 to 7.1 million by 2020 — an 87 percent increase.

The coalition members — representatives from nine New England airports, state transportation officials and the Federal Aviation Administration — developed three models to project growth in the region and at individual airports.

The most conservative scenario would peg Manchester Boston’s growth at about 6.3 million, a 67 percent increase by 2020, based on the area’s personal incomes growing by 1.2 percent annually. Growth could explode to 9.2 million passengers, or a whopping 143 percent, by 2020 if income growth rate were to increase from an average 2.4 percent to 3.6 percent and airfares continued to decline by 1.2 percent.

The 87 percent growth rate was based on the assumption that New Hampshire’s population would grow at an annual 0.8 percent rate, personal income would rise by 2.4 each year, and airfares would fall by 1.2 percent annually.

The report predicts that Manchester Boston Regional Airport will continue to serve as the primary airport for many in New Hampshire and the border regions as well as to “relieve passenger demand pressure on Logan [Airport] from areas to the north and west of Boston.”

Manchester Boston also may attract more flights, and hence passengers, with the completion of its longer runway, which is now able to handle transcontinental jets.

Issues that could impede growth, as already evidenced by declining passenger traffic in recent months, are low-cost carriers making fewer flights out of the airport and cheaper flights out of Logan as other carriers compete and enter into the market with the low-cost model, according to the study.

The writers of the study do make a point that such predictions are a bit like “driving down the highway looking in the rearview mirror.”

They say that changes in the key metrics could change the results, and the study “should not be considered to be a sharply focused photograph with accurate depiction of small details, but a well-studied sketch of the character of the future, best viewed at a little distance to properly perceive the impression it creates.”

“I think the study’s forecast closely matches the forecast we’ve made,” said Kevin Dillon, director of Manchester Boston. “It bears out the story we’ve been telling in that we will continue to serve in relieving the congestion at Logan.”

Dillon said the infrastructure at the airport could accommodate 9 million travelers, but he said he believes the report’s base case of 7 million to be more realistic.

Dillon also praised the FAA for leading such a regional approach to air traffic planning.

“We are one of the only regions in the country that have taken this cooperative approach. The FAA is considering using the coalition as a model for other regions like Los Angeles that have a congested central airport and other supporting facilities in nearby cities,” he said.

Overall, the study contends that travel activity for the New England region as a whole could expand from 42.9 million passengers in 2004 to 75 million in 2020, with a regional population growth of 0.3 percent, personal income growth of 1.6 percent, and average air fares falling 1.2 percent per year.

A copy of the report can be found at nerasp.com. — CINDY KIBBE

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