Airline Woes Felt at Manchester-Boston Regional

The high-flying days of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport are over -- at least for now.

Officials placed a hold on expansion plans, expect to snap the airport's string of annual passenger records this year and could lose the airport director to the land of Mickey and Minnie.

"I think this will be a down year for us," Airport Director Kevin Dillon said.

Last year, the state's largest airport served 4.3 million passengers -- its 10th straight yearly record.

But passenger totals through May were off 7.2 percent compared to last year and could end up down as much as 10 percent by year's end, meaning fewer than 4 million fliers, Dillon said.

The downturn in passengers is due to the state of the airline industry, which is consolidating and reducing capacity to cope with years of operating losses, he said.

"So it's not that the market had disappeared. It's simply that the seats have disappeared that supports the market," Dillon said.

By last December, the airport lost 20 percent of its seating capacity compared to the previous December.

Nationally, for the first three months of 2006, U.S. airlines were carrying 0.3 percent more fliers while running 4.1 percent fewer flights compared to the same period last year, according to federal transportation figures.

Airfares, in many cases, aren't as cheap either.

"I think slowly what's happening, prices are starting to creep up," Dillon said. But with high prices for jet fuel, he added, "In general, prices are up, but they're not up to the extent that they actually should be to cover the cost of providing the product."

With the slowdown, nearly every capital project at Manchester Airport is on hold, including its two biggest: a terminal expansion and a second parking garage.

"The reality is, with some of these shifts in the industry, airlines are becoming, I think, a lot smarter as to how they're using space and becoming a lot more efficient," Dillon said. "If I had to project now, yeah, I don't see us building a new terminal expansion for at least for a five-year period and that's also for the garage as well."

Estimates were $25 million for the terminal work and around $75 million for the second garage. No city tax dollars would have been used in either project.

Not everything is grinding to a halt.

Work, for instance, continues on the Brown Avenue end of the east-west runway. About 160 feet of pavement and turf is being added on the eastern end to serve as part of a safety overrun area. Construction will start next year on the western end of the runway. That will include re-directing part of South Willow Street.

While Manchester is losing passengers, Boston's Logan International Airport is poised to have its best year ever, surpassing 2000's record of 27.7 million passengers.

"We expect to break that in 2006," said Logan spokesman Richard Walsh.

The Sept. 11 attacks -- including the fact that two of the ill-fated planes left Logan -- have meant a long-term comeback for the Boston airport.

"We're in our fifth year of recovering," Walsh said. "We're recovering our passengers. Those are Logan passengers."

For the first five months of 2006, Logan's passenger totals are up 3.2 percent this year, leaving the airport on pace to handle nearly 28 million passengers this year.

"I think what it comes down to is the availability of flights," Walsh said.

Manchester rankled Logan officials three months ago when Manchester Airport decided to add "Boston" to its moniker.

As a way to improve the airport's marketing, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport will make it easier for people surfing the Internet to better locate where Manchester is and increase business there.

"It's going to be very difficult to judge the impact of a name change as to what was the specific growth at the airport," Dillon said.

The airport's new FAA control tower should take over sole control by the end of August.

Dillon foresees a recovery in passenger traffic next year.

Airlines already are starting to replace smaller planes with larger jets, such as Delta subbing in 70-seat regional jets for 50-seaters.

He thinks the passenger drop will bottom out this year and rebound in 2007.

Southwest continues to grab market share. The low-cost carrier now handles more than half of all airport passengers.

The first five months of 2006 saw 52.6 percent of passengers flying on the budget airline compared to 43.4 percent the previous year.

Meanwhile, Dillon also is one of finalists to head Orlando International Airport. Interviews are set for August.

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