April 08, 2020

New England airports key to region’s growth BIA’s opportunities, limits highlighted in new report

Airports, like hospitals, don’t command your attention until you need one.

Even so, Mainers and their fellow New Englanders rely on air transportation far more than others in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday.

“We rely very significantly on the aviation system,” Russell Charette, deputy director of the state’s office of passenger transportation said Wednesday, responding to the report.

According to the report – an update to a 1996 study commissioned in response to constraints at Boston’s Logan Airport – New England has an “unusually high reliance on air transportation, generating 2.5 air passenger trips per year per capita, which is almost 80 percent higher than the national rate of 1.4.”

That figure was a surprise, Charette said.

The report, which examined the 11 airports in New England with jet passenger service, including Bangor International Airport and the Portland Jetport, also outlines challenges faced in keeping up with demand.

Access to affordable airline transportation with smooth connections to the rest of the U.S. and the world is key for New England to maintain and enhance a vital economy, Charette said.

And increasingly, an air link to the world is one of the quality of life factors sought by the young entrepreneurs of the so-called creative economy in Maine.

“It’s another check mark for companies looking to locate here,” said Jeff Schultes, director of the Portland Jetport.

The prospects for both BIA and the Portland Jetport holding onto their share of the market are good, the report suggests. But at the same time, the realities of population and disposable income in the areas each serves will limit their growth.

Schultes points to the report’s analysis of personal income in airport catchment areas.

The area served by Manchester Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, N.H., boasts income of $375 billion among its 700,000 population. That compares to $20 billion for the Portland area’s 500,000 population and $8 billion for the Bangor catchment area’s 225,000.

“We don’t have the income to have robust airports,” he said, which draw major carriers to offer lower fares and more flights.

Schultes said despite the choices consumers make between BIA, Portland, Logan and Manchester, he would not work to lure people to his airport from other areas.

“I don’t want to steal them away,” he said, because Maine’s economy would be boosted if everyone living within an hour of BIA would use it, rather than other airports.

“We have got to keep Maine healthy,” Schultes said, which means keeping its airports busy.

BIA flew 445,000 passengers in 2004. By 2020, the report states, that should grow to nearly 1 million.

To maintain its growth, BIA must adapt to restructured airline fleets, new airline business models and changes in business aviation, the report states.

BIA Director Rebecca Hupp said the airport has suffered from the consolidation of older carriers, but “I think in the long term, we will be better served.”

With the introduction of regional jets at BIA, aircraft that carry between 35 and 100 passengers and with a cruising range of 1,200 miles, major airlines will be forced to compete on prices.

“I think we will see less difference in prices” between airlines, Hupp said.

BIA is served by USAirways Express, American Eagle, Northwest Airlink, Continental Express and Delta Connection/Comair.

With the increased time it takes to get security clearance, many business travelers are opting to use private jets, Hupp said, and BIA must accommodate that market.

Like Schultes, Hupp believes airports with a full menu of flights spur economic growth. High-level employees recruited from out of state to work at hospitals, universities, engineering firms and the like must be able to easily travel back home to visit, she said.

The Portland airport is also responding to industry changes. Since May, the discount airline Jet Blue has been operating out of the Jetport.

“Normally, when an airport gets a low-cost carrier, their numbers shoot through the roof,” Schultes said. But with three national airlines in bankruptcy, the number of seats available to travelers has dropped by 15-20 percent nationally, he said, resulting in a supply-demand ratio unfriendly to consumers.

“We were down 31,000 each way in July and August,” he said.

But the report uses especially rosy language in forecasting the Jetport’s future, noting it serves an area of “strong economic growth” and that it does not face any insurmountable challenges.

Some of the report’s general recommendations are that airports:

. Enhance the reliability of scheduled service.

. Reduce dependence on a single carrier.

. Develop niche markets.

. Improve road access.

The report was completed by the Louis Berger Group Inc. for the New England Airport Coalition, which consists of New England aviation agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Massachusetts Port Authority and the New England Council.

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