Portland Officials Hope AirTran will Help Stem 'Leakage'

Holly Pelkey of Lincoln could save some money from the scheduled June arrival of AirTran at Portland International Jetport.

With a daughter at Grove City College near Pittsburgh, holidays and school breaks bring added costs to the Pelkey family because of airfares. But discount carrier JetBlue's service to Portland already has lowered some fares, and AirTran is expected to drive down prices even more.

When she checked prices for a flight Tuesday with two of her children, ''it looked like they were (already) lower'' than previous flights, Pelkey said. Another discount airline, she added, ''will be exciting for us.''

Lower fares also would be good news for the airport, which lured JetBlue last year and on Tuesday announced AirTran's planned arrival.

The airport set a record for passengers in January, providing evidence that low-cost airlines can cut down on the number of people who choose to fly out of Manchester, N.H., and Boston rather than Portland. Another discount carrier should further limit this ''leakage,'' airport officials said.

Increased travel through Portland would mean more passenger fees to pay for airport expansion projects and also provide a boost for economic development in an era when easy and inexpensive air travel is a community asset.

''Competition and choice are all good,'' said Godfrey Wood, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber.

Wood noted that the chamber polled its members a few years ago and found that only about 40 percent regularly flew out of Portland, with the rest going to Boston or Manchester. Having low-cost carriers will save business travelers the time and cost of a two-hour trip to the airport, making the Portland region a more attractive place to do business.

As for AirTran, the carrier's executives are more interested in filling seats than in any side benefit their airline's presence might have for Portland.

AirTran will begin that effort on June 7 with three daily round-trips to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where passengers can connect with flights to more than a dozen other cities. On June 9, AirTran will offer its first round-trip to Orlando, service which will be available only on Saturdays.

The airline said that its Portland service will be seasonal, but John Kirby said the flights are scheduled at least through early November, which is as far as AirTran's schedule currently runs. He said service beyond that will depend on how much the airline earns per passenger.

That financial measure is what attracted AirTran to Portland, he said. The airline studied the results of Independence Air, which operated primarily on the East Coast before going out of business last year. The revenue-per-passenger figures in the Portland market were among the highest for the cities Independence Air served, Kirby said.

''We hope the planes are full, and we don't walk away from full airplanes,'' he said.

There's no reason why AirTran shouldn't be successful, said Eric Baxter, vice president for leisure sales at Hewins Travel in Portland, with consumers also benefiting.

With AirTran and JetBlue, ''the number of low-cost seats increases significantly for the general public, and that keeps the Deltas and Uniteds of this world on their toes,'' Baxter said. ''We saw that big time with JetBlue.''

JetBlue, he noted, led to competitors cutting fares for a round-trip to New York from about $750 to $150. AirTran should do the same for Washington, which is another popular destination for Maine travelers.

JetBlue, he added, should recover from the damage caused by hundreds of cancelled flights on President's Day weekend after a Northeast snow and ice storm.

The airline, he said, has suffered a significant public relations hit but should benefit from efforts to win back customers.

''By and large, I think the traveling public is very fickle in terms of its loyalty - and rightly so,'' Baxter said. ''For a while, JetBlue has been the superstar and now they've had their comeuppance, and that's probably a good thing.''

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