Manchester-Boston airport adapts to new air travel realities

In September, a nearly 5 percent drop in passenger traffic at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport was cause for celebration, said J. Brian O’Neill, deputy airport director.”What it shows is we’re starting to moderate. We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” O’Neill said.During the second half of the last decade, he said, double-digit declines in passenger traffic were common – the result of soaring fuel prices, the recession and consolidation of airlines.”Airlines are getting to a point now where there’s much more stability, and the stability is going to help us with the long-range planning,” O’Neill said.That long-range planning is soon to result in the airport’s 2010 master plan update – a document vastly different from the 1997 version, which called for major terminal and runway projects. The executive summary alone was 10 pages in 1997, and the cost of the projects was about $500 million.Since then, almost all of those projects have been completed, including 14 gates and a runway that has the capacity to handle international flights. The few projects left undone include construction of a second parking garage and the addition of nine gates.The 2010 master plan update will examine opportunities for improving technology and creating more efficiency, said O’Neill. There will be no big-ticket construction initiatives.”It’s about getting better. We’re going to use new technologies, spend money maintaining the high-quality infrastructure we’ve created over the last decade,” he said. “It’s more about improving concessions, improving security screening checkpoints and focusing on customer service initiatives to improve the Manchester experience.”That’s the right approach, said Roy Williams, an airport planning consultant who has managed airports overseas as well as in the United States – including in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.”The impact of the recession and the very slow recovery, combined with consolidation of airlines and the reduction of redundant routes all mean for an airport the size of Manchester that it is right to be focused on service retention for now,” he said.The ‘Southwest effect’During the airport’s heyday – between 1998 and 2005 – Manchester-Boston Regional Airport was the fastest growing in the country, O’Neill said. Southwest Airlines, which arrived on the scene in 1998, helped spur traffic to a high of 2.2 million “enplaned” (on board) passengers in 2005 – a level not seen since.In fact, airport officials don’t expect to see that same level of activity until around 2030.This year, the number of enplaned passengers has dropped to about 1.5 million. That number is expected to climb again – slowly but steadily – beginning in 2011.”The pendulum swings both ways,” O’Neill said. “Now, during this adjustment, I think we’ve been one of the fastest to kind of correct back down to our new norm, our new expectations.”When Southwest Airlines arrived in Manchester, the airport virtually doubled in size, seemingly overnight, O’Neill said. “We were adding terminal additions, adding parking, improving the runways.”It has been called the “Southwest effect,” said Williams. “Where Southwest showed up, you would have 30 percent more traffic,” he said.At that time, Southwest mainly focused on mid-sized airports like Manchester’s, Williams said. But the airline has since changed its strategy to target major airports, such as Logan.”The challenges Manchester faces going forward are that, clearly the Boston market has changed, and even as the economy recovers the fact that there’s so much more low-fare cost in Boston is going to have an impact on the whole region,” Williams said.Thomas Malafronte, assistant airport director in Manchester, has been with the airport for more than 20 years.He recalled when parking was on the honor system. “You got an envelope on your windshield, there was a red box in the terminal, and if you paid, great, and if you didn’t pay, oh well,” he said.Malafronte said the day Southwest chose to fly out of Manchester was a high point. “One of the most disappointing times was when we learned it would fly out of Boston,” he said.The airline had had a long-term goal of 50 daily flights out of Manchester, O’Neill said. When Logan entered the picture, the Manchester airport was at about 32 daily flights. Since then, the number of flights has declined to somewhere in the 20s.Meanwhile, one of the few complaints among generally very loyal Manchester customers is ticket prices, according to Malafronte, who spends a good amount of time on the phone with airlines to convince them to keep ticket costs low out of Manchester, as the battle among several low-cost carriers in Boston helps drive ticket prices down at Logan.Also, with about 10 percent the capacity of Logan, Manchester’s cheap seats simply fill up faster than they do at Logan, leaving the pricier seats, O’Neill said.”All we can do is continue to reiterate to airlines how important it is to keep fares competitive so our travelers will continue to support their services here, and if they do that they can be successful in all New England airports,” Malafronte said.According to O’Neill, Manchester also can pose this question to carriers: “Why are you going to go down there and battle five other low-cost carriers when you can put service up here and own the market?”So far, the airport has managed to stay in air-service maintenance mode, Malafronte said. “We haven’t lost airlines. We haven’t lost destinations. We’ve just lost seats,” he said. “So in our mind that’s still a pretty positive thing.”Another positive development has been cargo traffic, which was up 4.3 percent in September and up 8.5 percent since September 2009. That growth has made Manchester the third-largest cargo airport in New England.New realitiesA major way to attract airlines is by keeping their per-enplaned-passenger costs low. Manchester’s is about half that of Logan’s, O’Neill said. But keeping that advantage is no easy feat when dealing with fixed costs and diminished flights.Still, the airport has managed to cut its budget from $58 million in 2008 to $45 million in 2011, O’Neill said. It has found savings in employee parking arrangements and privatization of what had been a free shuttle service to parts of Massachusetts.”We are extremely conservative businesspeople. We have needed to adjust our budget to align with new realities we’ve seen,” O’Neill said.Some of those new realities promise to be beneficial: The airport access road is ahead of schedule – with the completion date revised from June 2012 to November 2011. The road will cross the Merrimack River and connect the F.E. Everett Turnpike to the airport.”It’ll be our new front door,” O’Neill said.It will also open up hundreds of acres of industrial land in Londonderry, which is working on getting federal funding for its own road to connect with the access road.That land, said Andre Garron, the town’s director of planning and development, could provide about 4 million square feet of commercial industrial development, generating between 4,000 and 6,000 jobs.And though the 2010 master plan may be short on grand ambitions, there are provisions for major developments, including the use of retractable walls to arrange for international flights.But, said airport officials, the time has to be right to make such an investment, which would include building a customs and immigration facility.”The challenge is we don’t ever build anything or add any cost to airlines by adding facilities until we know we have the demand to do that,” Malafronte said. “In this environment, the last thing you want to do is add another dollar to the carriers that you have.”