Mar. 17--Planes may feel like cattle cars these days, as airlines try to maximize profits by squeezing passengers onto the smallest planes they can on every flight.
That's creating a financial headache for Boston's Logan International Airport. Starting April 1, Logan will begin charging airlines 2.4 percent more for landing planes, to make up a deficit in a fund used to pay for airfield operations.
The move could put some pressure on airlines to raise ticket prices at Logan. But airport officials said yesterday they don't expect to see any huge impact.
"Clearly, it's a cost to them, and they're concerned about all costs, but airport fees are really a very small piece of the pie," said Logan aviation director Thomas J. Kinton Jr. Airport-related fees of all kinds, including landing fees and terminal rentals, typically represent no more than 7 to 9 percent of most airlines' costs, Kinton said. The increase will add roughly $10 to $30 per flight landed, or potentially only 10 or 20 cents per incoming passenger depending on the size of plane.
Although they are a small part of airlines' overall costs, landing fees represent a big part of Massport's more than $1 million a day in revenues. A Boeing 737-300, a common workhorse of many airline fleets, would be charged about $470 to land at Logan, while a 218-seat Boeing 767 could pay more than $1,550, according to calculations derived from Boeing specification sheets for the planes.
Ned Raynolds, a spokesman for American Airlines, the top carrier at Logan by passenger volume, declined comment on Massport's decision.
An official at a second airline, who asked not to be identified because of legal concerns, said airlines are leery about making comments about future pricing moves for fear they might be interpreted by antitrust regulators as efforts to send signals to other airlines encouraging them to raise fares too.
"It's also impossible to say that not a single penny of this increase would ever find its way into ticket prices," the official said.
The board of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, voted yesterday to increase the airplane landing fee at the airport to $3.89 per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight, up from $3.78. The fee does not generate any profit for Massport but only covers the costs of operating the airfield, Kinton said.
Because of severe financial pressures from low-cost carriers and jet fuel prices, airlines are increasingly operating smaller, fuller planes in and out of Logan, including 70- and 100-seat regional jets on routes that formerly were served by larger jets. That means revenues from the landing-weight fee, which were expected to increase by 2.5 percent this year, are actually on track to drop by 0.5 percent -- even as Logan's passenger volume continues to grow and is likely to return to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels later this year.
Six years ago, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks sharply depressed air travel, Logan served 27 million passengers on about 480,000 flights per year. Logan travel has since gradually rebounded, but the airport is now serving the same 27 million passengers with just 410,000 yearly flights, Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy said.
Massport is raising the fee to make sure it collects enough money to run the airfield, and will also come back to airlines with an as-yet-undetermined one-time fee in September to make up for red ink in the landing-fee account during the last five months, Kinton said.
Last month, Massport installed a new automated system for recording and collecting landing fees. It takes data from air-traffic control radar systems showing the actual tail number of each plane landing, and assesses the airlines that own those planes based on the weight of the specific plane, without fuel, cargo, or passengers. Previously, Massport relied on what Kinton called "an honor system" of airlines reporting what planes they landed and how much they weigh.
Already, the new system has recouped $250,000 in extra revenues, more than paying for the cost of the upgrade, Kinton said.