AirTran Pushing to Expand at Logan

Jan. 25--On the heels of JetBlue Airways Corp.'s rapid expansion of service at Logan International Airport in Boston, another low-fare carrier, AirTran Airways, is pushing for new and improved gate space at Logan, AirTran's president said yesterday.

Having already outgrown its three gates in the aging Terminal D, AirTran has in recent weeks had to send some passengers on a long walk upstairs to a fourth gate it is renting in Terminal C from United Airlines.

"We don't think it's the ideal location," AirTran president and chief operating officer Robert L. Fornaro said in an interview. "We have had conversations with the [Massachusetts] Port Authority and other airlines. We just haven't found a solution yet that's workable."

One possibility would be for AirTran to take space in Delta Air Lines's $500 million Terminal A, which opened last March. Bankrupt Delta is flush with extra capacity at Terminal A, which has 18 gates to handle jets and seven tarmac parking spots for smaller regional jets. (AirTran operates only Boeing 717 and 737 jets, not regional jets.)

But under terms of the bond deal Massport issued for Delta to build the terminal, Delta has no legal obligation to make gates available to rivals before March 2010.

"Probably the most underused facility at the airport is the new Delta terminal," said Fornaro. "It's a beautiful facility. It's also a very high-cost facility."

Industry officials say it's unlikely that Delta would help out a rival. AirTran has taken direct aim at Delta in Boston, aggressively challenging Delta's dominance of Boston-Atlanta and Boston-Florida routes. Delta counterattacked last month by launching new service from Boston to AirTran stronghold Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, challenging AirTran with six daily flights on that route.

Said Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly: "We continue to talk to carriers about potentially subleasing space at Terminal A, but we have nothing to announce at this time."

Finding four or five contiguous gates for AirTran in terminals B or C could require Massport, which runs Logan, to do some complex reshuffling of gate allocations. The agency may have to give rental discounts to a variety of carriers including American Airlines, US Airways, United, Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, Cape Air, and Midwest.

"We hope to accommodate AirTran as best we can," said Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy.

JetBlue headed off growing pains at Logan by moving into Delta's former space. The low-fare carrier has committed to take over 11 of the 25 gates Delta vacated in Terminal C by November 2008. Last week JetBlue took a lease on a seventh gate, eight months earlier than originally scheduled, to help accommodate newly launched service to Dulles International Airport just outside Washington and to Austin, Texas. JetBlue expects to grow to 50 daily nonstops from Logan by April, up from 40 now.

AirTran's Fornaro acknowledges getting more space won't be easy. And the need will grow as the airline expands. AirTran offers 27 daily nonstop flights, including to Atlanta, Chicago's Midway Airport, and Philadelphia. Fornaro said he expects AirTran to increase to more than 30 flights by summer.

"There are going to be some opportunities for us to make a change, but it's not going to be immediate," Fornaro said. "It's hard to find four or five gates elsewhere that meet our criteria."

Several AirTran passengers interviewed yesterday said merging the airline's gate operations in a single, better-appointed space would be a good move.

Steve Borlace, an electrical engineer from Detroit who flew to Boston for a work project, said the unclear layout led him to walk upstairs into Terminal C after a rental car shuttle bus dropped him off, before he learned he had to take himself and his bags back downstairs to check in at AirTran's Terminal D counter.

"It was a little confusing up here," Borlace said. He also called the space "old and worn out," pointing at a long, jagged crack in the floor of the AirTran check-in area.

Terminal D was once the "new" international terminal Logan opened in September 1964, before replacing it with the John A. Volpe International Terminal E a decade later, and it has been only minimally revamped since.

"It's been convenient flying in here, but it makes sense to consolidate from a business standpoint," said Derek Van Tichelt, an executive with a Chicago railroad equipment supplier who has been flying weekly on AirTran to Boston for a local project.