Air Travel Rebounds at Boston's Logan Int'l

Dec. 22--Boston's Logan International Airport appears to be on track to serve more than 27 million passengers by year's end for the first time in five years.

But based on November traffic figures released yesterday, it appears Logan will fail to meet expectations that 2005 would be when travel returned to levels before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks crippled the travel industry.

Several factors appear to have dampened growth in Logan passenger volumes. September and October hurricanes disrupted travel to the Gulf Coast and Deep South, financially struggling airlines trimmed service, and a two-day airport radar breakdown in October also cancelled dozens of flights.

"It looks like we're likely to exceed the 27 million level, which is great news for Logan, but we're probably going to wind up about 500,000 short" of the record 27.7 million passengers handled in 2000, airport spokesman Phil Orlandella said.

Through November, Logan had handled 25.1 million passengers, up 3.8 percent from a year earlier, according to Massport figures.

Nationwide, industry analysts expect that when figures are in at the end of this month, 2005 will mark the first time air travel has surpassed pre-9/11 levels.

The sector remains in dire financial straits, reeling from a $9 billion industrywide increase in jet fuel costs this year, with big carriers including Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, and United Airlines operating in bankruptcy protection.

But the steady growth in passenger counts is giving airlines and airport managers something to cheer about and build growth plans around. Passenger growth can determine how rapidly terminal and runway upgrades are completed at airports, including Logan, which collects a $4.50-per-ticket "passenger facilities fee" to pay for construction and renovation.

"The data we have suggest we are back at or have exceeded pre-September 2001 levels, although that's a national, aggregate figure, and each airport is different," said Scott W. Wintner, a spokesman for Airports Council International, an airport managers trade association. "We're excited about the growth."

Daniel M. Kasper, managing director of the Cambridge office of LECG LLC, an international aviation consulting firm, said he would expect Logan passenger growth to lag national figures. "Boston took a bigger hit after 9/11 than most other airports, so it may be a tad slower in getting back up to those levels," he said.

Because of the geography of the Northeast, the major flight destinations for Logan travelers -- metropolitan New York, Philadelphia, and Washington -- represented exactly the under-500-mile trips that "took the severest hit" in the wake of 9/11, Kasper said.

When toughened security procedures after the terrorist strikes that leveled the World Trade Center added an hour or more to 60- to 90-minute flights, many travelers switched to Amtrak, buses, or cars, or skipped business trips.

"If I were Massport folks, I wouldn't be discouraged," Kasper said. "Things are clearly going in the right direction. The overall prognosis is still pretty good."

Orlandella said Logan officials have not publicly projected passenger volume for next year, but are optimistic. Besides benefiting from industrywide growth, Logan officials expect an extra boost from JetBlue Airways. The discount carrier now flies to 12 cities from Logan and is adding service this winter to Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Nassau, Bahamas; and Richmond, Va. JetBlue has also signed contracts to add two more gates at Logan's Terminal C next year for further service expansion.

At T.F. Green State Airport outside Providence, passenger volume fell in October by 5.8 percent, the first year-over-year drop in more than 18 months. But airport officials hope to achieve full-year passenger growth of close to 6 percent and exceed 2000 passenger levels.

Logan's other closest rival, Manchester Airport in New Hampshire, has served 4 million passengers in the first 11 months of this year, compared with 3.7 million in all of last year and 3.2 million in 2000, said a spokesman, J. Brian O'Neill. US low-fare leader Southwest Airlines has served Manchester since June 1998 and Providence since October 1996, but not Logan, and has been a key driver of their passenger volume growth.