Massachusetts Port Authority Shoots to Double Nonstop Global Flights at Logan

Oct. 20--As a regular traveler to Beijing and Hong Kong, where he's developing business ventures, Boston lawyer James E. Smith would love few things in life more than a nonstop flight out of Logan International Airport.

"That is really an attractive notion, and I think it'd be a very popular service here," said Smith, who has suffered through 20-hour flights through New York, or in some cases triple-hops from Boston to Toronto to Vancouver to China.

The Massachusetts Port Authority is hoping it can prove to airlines that there are tens of thousands of people like Smith throughout New England and Maritime Canada who feel the same way -- not just about Beijing and Hong Kong, but 26 other international destinations where Massport thinks it can promote nonstop service from Logan. Today, passengers at Logan can take nonstop flights to 28 international cities.

Despite the industry's deep financial woes and cutbacks and the drop in business travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Massport last month brought on an airline-industry veteran, Yil Surehan, as its route-development manager.

Surehan recently told Massport's board he sees a chance for Massport to double the number of international destinations at Logan to 56 within the next several years. Besides Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, other candidates include Brussels, Glasgow, Madrid, and Tokyo. After new, smaller long-range jets come to market in 2008, potential new cities include Delhi and Mumbai in India; Singapore; Dubai in the Persian Gulf; and Tel Aviv.

One factor in Massport's pitch is selling Logan as an international departure point for New England and Maritime Canada, which can feed passengers into the Boston airport.

"This is a very difficult time for the airlines, and no airline wants to invest in subsidizing a route for a long time -- they want to be successful from the get-go," Surehan, who spent 15 years planning route networks for airlines including Alaska Air Lines, American Airlines, and United Airlines, said in an interview this week.

But, Surehan said, "We see some near-term profitable opportunities in basically all continents."

Financially strapped airlines including American and Delta Air Lines have been aggressively trying to boost the more profitable international service and cut domestic flights.

On Tuesday, Delta unveiled plans to add service on 11 international routes out of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International and John F. Kennedy International in New York, including Athens, Budapest, Kiev, and Nice, France.

But nonstop international service out of Boston remains a tough sell. Bob Cortelyou, Delta vice president of network planning, said that for now Delta is focusing on serving New England international customers with new routes through New York and Atlanta because it has yet to see clear evidence that Logan alone can support service to routes other than Bermuda, Paris, and small cities in Maritime Canada.

"Is it feasible in the future? Of course, but we're not at that point yet," Cortelyou said.

Despite the challenge, Michael Allen, a consultant with BACK Aviation Solutions, a New Haven strategic consulting firm, said Massport is looking in the right area.

"There are a lot of carriers that are moving capacity out of domestic service into international," Allen said. "China is the fastest-growing country in the world. Japan's a very big market for tourists coming to the United States."

Over the last 10 years, the number of international routes from the US running four or more flights per week has soared to 764 from 535, BACK data show.

Charles H. Yelen, a Newton aviation industry consultant who was formerly Massport's deputy executive director, said the authority's move shows "airport policymakers have both vision and guts. The critical task of marketing has never come easily to people who operate airports."

Industry executives say the job of selling airlines on launching direct flights is overwhelmingly just doing the homework of providing travel, employment, population, ethnic, and other data proving enough people fly, want to fly, or could be persuaded by nonstops to fly more between Boston and another city to merit direct service.

Outside of huge markets such as Shanghai or Tokyo, Boston-to-Asia service may only begin to make sense after 2008, when Boeing Co.'s new 787 aircraft goes into service. The 220- to 260-seater can fly the same distances as 747s, 777s, and Airbus A-380s that have up to twice as many seats but are probably too big for the actual demand for service from, say, Boston to Mumbai.

Asked to handicap Massport's list, Joan G. Kaplan, executive vice president of Garber Travel, a Chestnut Hill corporate-travel consultant, said she thinks that "there is not enough business to go to Beijing and Shanghai from Boston nonstop, or Madrid, either."

But Kaplan said she thinks Brussels, Glasgow, Tokyo, and Quebec City "might all be good ones."

Surehan acknowledged that trial and error will be part of Massport's job. "We'll probably look at nine or 10 markets before one will come to fruition," Surehan said. Betty Desrosiers, director of aviation and planning and development at Massport, said Logan executives also recognize that "the competition amongst airports is much stiffer" than it was in the 1990s.

Massport chairman John A. Quelch, a Harvard Business School professor, also said he is concerned that Massport stay focused on retaining existing international routes, noting that Logan once had service to some markets it is now eyeing, including Athens, Brussels, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Lisbon, and Seoul.

"When you sign up an airline, your job is 50 percent complete," Quelch said. "I just want to make sure that we're putting enough emphasis on the retention of the carriers that stay here rather than just running on to the next service."


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