When flying, all's fare; Bangor airport struggles to compete in regional ticket-pricing game

When snowbirds Everett and Carol Murch of Searsport are visited by Floridian friends in the summertime, the couple asks them to do one thing in return for the hospitality - fly into Bangor.

Bangor is conveniently located within an hour's drive of their Searsport home. If a guest's arrival flight is delayed or canceled, the Murches, who drive to collect their friends, don't have to rent a hotel while waiting for their visitors.

If the departure flight goes awry, then the guests skirt the hotel bill and stay at the Murch home until they find a flight, Carol Murch, 69, said, while waiting for friends to arrive at BIA this week.

When the tables are turned, however, and the Murches are the ones on the move, BIA is not the airport of choice.

"Frankly, we have used Manchester in the past just because of prices," said Carol Murch. "By the time you take a car and park it, it's still cheaper to fly out of there. And from there you get direct flights."

The Murches' travel habits illustrate the dilemma faced by BIA in an increasingly complex commercial airline industry: Make flying cheaper or the competition might make you obsolete. To date, BIA hasn't found a way to make flying consistently cheaper.

As passengers seek cheaper alternatives and go elsewhere, airlines sometimes follow.

In July, American Eagle announced it will pull out of the Bangor market on Nov. 5. American provided more than 108,000 passenger seats a year to Boston and New York City.

Fares down nationally

Sharpening the price contrast between BIA and other airports in the region is the fact that the average domestic round-trip ticket fare is down 0.6 percent from the 2006 first-quarter price of $382 to $379.80 in the first quarter of 2007, according to the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The Portland International Jetport and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport are included in the bureau's reports, which focus on airports experiencing either sharp price decreases or increases. Bangor is not mentioned in either category.

Manchester is included in the BTS report because it experienced the largest price index decrease of all the nation's airports from the first quarter in 1995, compared with the same three months in 2007. Prices dropped by 9 percent.

Portland ranked second nationally for the average domestic fare decrease from first quarter 2006 to first quarter 2007. The average fare came in at $419.10 in 2006 but dropped to $367.90 this year, a 12.2 percent decrease.

When asked about Bangor's fares, BIA Director Rebecca Hupp responded, "The perception is certainly that the prices are higher, and I suspect the perception is correct. I, personally, haven't noticed a difference when I purchased for myself, either for business or leisure."

Airline ticket prices change by the minute, said Hupp. Airlines constantly reassess prices in order to maximize the profit of every seat sold, she said.

"There is increasingly no rhyme or reason to the prices being charged by airlines at any given time," said J. Brian O'Neill, deputy director of the Manchester airport. "It is frustrating to see the huge fluctuations in airfares regardless of destinations."

The prices quoted by Bangor Travel Services for this article were in essence a snapshot taken on the morning of Aug. 30, but the industry is constantly in flux. Other Web sites, travel agencies and even Bangor Travel would probably quote different prices today.

"People overall are looking at price, price, price," said Greg Hughes, marketing manager at the Portland jetport. "A $20 [ticket price] difference with a family of four is another meal, and price-conscious people are going to make that choice."

BIA lacks low-cost carrier

The key element that BIA is missing is a low-cost carrier that flies large aircraft to multiple destinations, which would drive down fares in the Bangor market, said Cindy Hardy, owner of Bangor Travel Services. She applauded BIA for attracting Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier that will fly twice a week to Orlando starting in November, but said the service is not the same as JetBlue and AirTran Airways in Portland, or Southwest Airlines in Manchester.

"Portland has become a very aggressive low-cost carrier airport with the addition of JetBlue and AirTran," Hardy said. "The two low-cost carriers are heavily competing against one another, making our major carriers compete."

JetBlue began operating out of Portland in May 2006, and AirTran started in June 2007. Portland's negotiations with JetBlue took more than six years because the airline wanted to ensure adequate market demand to justify low-cost service, Hughes said.

Southwest moved into Manchester in the summer of 1998, after what O'Neill described as "many years" of discussions. Southwest was the second step to the airport's transformation in the late '90s, he said.

In 1997, the airport negotiated common rated airfares with US Airways, meaning the airline would give travelers from Manchester the same price Boston Logan International Airport passengers received when flying to the same destination.

"Previous to those two events, we were the convenient airport that had high airfares," O'Neill said. "As soon as we eliminated the airfare discrepancy, we became the convenient little airport with competitive rates."

Many discount carriers have population guidelines for cities they move into, and it historically has kept Bangor out of the low-cost market, Hupp said.

"Certainly what the community is looking for is low cost and connectivity, and the best fit for that would probably be JetBlue," said Hupp. "I'll be candid. We had a discussion [with JetBlue] in June and they are interested in Bangor, but they are very concerned about the population base."

JetBlue's presence in Portland serves as a double-edged sword to Bangor, Hupp said. If the service is not successful in Portland, then the airline would never consider moving into a place like Bangor, she said. While Bangor needs Portland to prosper, BIA has to prove it is a viable airport as Bangor-area passengers use southern airports in search of lower fares.

Bangor did attract low-cost Allegiant, but "I don't think that Allegiant will have the same impact on fares overall that a low-cost carrier that has connections to more points would have," Hupp said.

Educated consumers

The key to finding lower prices at BIA is being an educated consumer who calculates all the costs of a trip, plans ahead and has a flexible travel schedule, said Hupp.

"I think we recognize that fares and pricing from Bangor is a challenge, and unfortunately the airport does not set the prices," said Hupp.

Airport fees account for approximately 10 percent of an airline's operating cost industrywide, Hupp said. She said Bangor's fees are equivalent to airports of similar size, and those fees are "relatively minor and don't significantly impact the fares that are charged."

Hardy, owner of Bangor Travel Services, said she and her consultants work very hard to get travelers from this area to use the Bangor airport, but recently it has been a struggle.

In the past, about 85 percent of Bangor Travel clients chose convenience and flew out of Bangor. When reflecting on the major winter vacation packages she has booked recently, Hardy said almost all have used Portland. Out of the 25 most recent packages the agency handled, only one large group and a local businessman booked tickets from Bangor.

"We will fight [airline costs] to get people to fly out of Bangor," Hardy said. "It is very important to me to keep this airport vital; I have a business here and my husband has a business; we need an airport to help us grow.

"The reality of the situation is the person's pocketbook is going to tell them where to go [fly from], and we can never compete with that."

There are low fares available in the Bangor market, but "the best rates are always with proper planning," Hardy said.

Amy Faircloth, 47, of Bangor said she flies out of Bangor nearly every time she travels, and she already has priced tickets for the family's April vacation. While in hope that prices will drop, she will continue to use her hometown airport, Faircloth said.

"Once you overnight, travel and pay for parking at other airports, it's just easier to come here," Faircloth said while waiting in the BIA domestic terminal for her mother to arrive from Florida.

It may not surprise anyone that parking fees are the top revenue source for Portland and Manchester airports, and it ranks third in Bangor. BIA anticipates that $973,000 of the annual $6.17 million in revenue, or 15 percent, will come from parking fees this year, according to Risteen Masters, marketing director at BIA. The Manchester airport's operating revenue is nearly $45 million a year, and management anticipates this year $25 million of that will come from parking fees alone, said O'Neill.

Many travelers will pay expensive parking fees at other airports to get lower airfares.

The quickest solution to Bangor's ticket price struggle is promoting tourism, said Bob Ziegelaar, president of Telford Aviation Inc. and former director of BIA. Tourism would stimulate business in Bangor, boost population and create a higher demand for the airport, he said.

"The airport, and Rebecca Hupp by herself, cannot make Bangor a more attractive location," said Ziegelaar. "Bangor by itself is not a tourist attraction. It's not a single airport or municipal issue; it's really a state issue, and we need to concentrate on attracting tourism and developing our own market."

The Manchester airport wrestled with lofty ticket prices several years ago, and O'Neill offered two pieces of advice to BIA officials and Bangor area residents.

"Bangor needs to continue to work with the airline community to keep prices competitive," said O'Neill. "The business community in the Greater Bangor area, whenever possible, needs to support the local airport. If you fly out of Portland, you just validate what the airlines think."

Fast facts

. Approximately 415,000 passengers used BIA in 2006.

. Approximately 1.4 million passengers used Portland International Jetport in 2006.

. Approximately 3.9 million passengers used Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in 2006.

. Approximately 27.7 million passengers used Boston Logan International Airport in 2006.

. 17 percent of Bangor International Airport's passengers book tickets using an online booking agency (such as Expedia or Travelocity); 37 percent book directly with the airline (buying at the ticket counter, over the phone, Web site, etc.); 46 percent book tickets with local travel agents.

. 85 percent of the passengers who use Manchester-Boston Regional Airport book their tickets online.

. 49 percent of BIA's passengers come from as far east as Lubec, north as Ashland and west as Bingham; the remaining 51 percent are from the remaining portions of northern and western Maine, cutting off entirely near the Lewiston area.

. 7 percent of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport's passengers are from Maine.

. 40 percent of Portland International Jetport's passengers are traveling for business.

. 35 percent of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport's travelers are business passengers.

Source: Airport officials

Parking fees

Bangor International Airport

$7 maximum daily charge (long-term)

$42 maximum weekly charge

Portland International Jetport

$10 maximum daily charge (long-term - garage)

$8 maximum daily charge (long-term - surface)

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport

$17 maximum daily charge (long-term - garage)

$85 maximum weekly charge (long-term - garage)

$10 daily charge (long-term - surface)

Boston Logan International Airport

$24 daily charge (garage)

$18 daily rate (economy lot)

$108 weekly rate (economy lot)

Source: Airport Web sites

Mileage from Bangor

To Boston Logan International Airport - 233 miles.

To Manchester-Boston Regional Airport - 226 miles.

To Portland International Jetport - 132 miles.

Source: MapQuest