D.C. Top Destination for Logan Travelers

Jan. 16--The planned launch tomorrow by JetBlue Airways Corp. of six daily round trips from Boston to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia reflects a dramatic change in local air travel: Washington is the new New York.

After decades of being by far the leading destination for passengers at Logan International Airport, metropolitan New York has in the past two years slipped to second place behind the Washington, D.C., area. Today, nearly one in every eight Logan passengers is headed to one of the area's three airports -- Dulles, Reagan National, or Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Several factors have pushed Washington to the top of the list for Logan travel, particularly a huge drop-off in New York-bound traffic since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With recommended pre-flight check-in waits and security lines now taking more time than the 40-minute flight itself, industry analysts say many frequent travelers are finding ways to avoid New York business trips, or are getting there by bus, car, or train.

At Peter Pan Bus Lines, for example, Boston-New York ridership plunged after 9/11 but has since recovered and is up 5 percent overall, Peter Pan executive vice president Robert Schwarz said. During the same period, discount Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus services emerged, and Amtrak launched its high-speed Acela trains giving travelers more alternatives.

At the same time, Boston-Washington travel has grown steadily, boosted by the availability of more low-fare tickets on that route than between Boston and New York, and commuting by "road warrior" workers between the high-tech and professional-services hotbeds that drive the local economies in northern Virginia and the Hub.

In the last four months, Bret A. Cohen, 39, a labor lawyer with Boston law firm Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo P.C. who represents many high-tech employers, has made more than 20 trips between Logan and Dulles. This year, he anticipates splitting his time between Mintz Levin's offices in the Financial District and Reston, Va.

"When you do it as much as I do, it gets very easy," said Cohen, who has come to see as many familiar faces on the Logan-Dulles flights as he did during five years of riding the commuter train from Natick to South Station.

After the demise of bankrupt low-fare carrier Independence Air, which shut down its five daily Logan-Dulles round trips earlier this month, Cohen said he was delighted to see JetBlue coming in with fares as low as $80 round trip. "I'm getting signed up as much as I can on JetBlue," Cohen said.

For Jeremy Billy, the frequent, affordable service between Dulles and Boston has been key to a major career decision. After eight years as an executive with America Online Inc., Billy, 37, is taking a new position this month based in Marshfield as vice president of US sales for Burgopak, a premium packaging manufacturer. But he will keep his residence in Arlington, Va., commuting at least weekly to Logan.

"I feel a little bit like a pioneer, but I am hoping to avoid having to move from Arlington," Billy said, adding, "You couldn't have done this five years ago."

Billy said he has been a loyal and happy customer of United Airlines, which dominates the Dulles-Boston route. But having JetBlue as both a second choice and a source of price pressure on United "is a huge plus," he said. "I'm looking for the cheapest flight I can get."

Discount flights are a major reason Washington has overtaken New York as the top Logan destination, industry officials say. In the heyday of discount carriers such as People Express and New York Air, air traffic between Boston and New York hit a peak of nearly 4 million travelers in 1984. But it has dropped to less than half that level recently after 9/11 and the demise of discount shuttles, according to BACK Aviation Solutions, a Connecticut consulting firm.

On an average day, about 2,417 Logan travelers head to one of the three New York-area airports, LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International, or Newark Liberty International, compared with 2,437 passengers bound for the Washington-area's three airports, according to data compiled for Logan officials by BACK.

In November, JetBlue began offering nine daily Logan-JFK flights on 100-seat jets, which have proven popular, and could push metropolitan New York back into first place for travelers leaving Logan.

Adam Green, JetBlue's manager of route planning, said of the boom in Boston-Washington air travel, "Southwest really started this phenomenon 10 years ago when they entered the BWI [Baltimore/Washington International] market" with service from Providence and Manchester, N.H., and proved that offering discounted flights could sharply stimulate demand for travel between the two areas.

Meanwhile, AirTran Airways has increased service to eight daily flights from Boston to Baltimore/Washington International and a ninth on Friday and Sunday nights. And more recently Delta Air Lines Inc. began offering six daily Logan-Baltimore/Washington International flights beginning Dec. 1, using 40-seat jets, to fend off low-fare rivals.

An indication that the Boston-Washington route may be saturated came when AirTran last month abruptly dropped plans to offer four daily Logan-Dulles round trips beginning in February, which would have competed with both United and JetBlue.

Yil Surehan, who leads route development efforts for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, said that, come March, 40,249 seats will be available each week on flights from Logan to the three Washington-area airports. That's up from 36,692 in November, and had AirTran gone ahead with its service rollout, it would have raised the figure to 43,408.

"It was a completely rational decision for them not to enter the market," Surehan said. "It doesn't mean that the Boston-Washington market is not good."