Half-empty Manchester airport is trying to rebound – but at least the cargo business is robust 

  • Manchester-Boston Regional Airport director Ted Kitchens talks with vendo Jason Martino on Thursday inside the airport’s main terminal. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A Southwest airliner sits at a gate at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on Thursday.

Monitor staff
Published: 5/9/2019 4:06:44 PM

With only half of its passenger gates ever used and just four airlines with regular flights, it’s easy to see that Manchester’s airport is struggling with industry-wide changes that have reduced passenger numbers at many regional airports.

But in a less-obvious area – the cargo flights that mostly come in at night to load and unload at facilities away from the public terminal – things are looking better, reflecting the state’s robust economy and the growth of the logistics industry here.

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport handled more cargo in 2018 than at any year in its history except right before the 2008 economic recession: A total of 185 million pounds, almost 9% more than the year before.

As the ebullient new airport director puts it: “That’s like 37,400 F-150 trucks!”

“We’re the third-largest cargo airport in New England, after Boston and Bradley (in Connecticut),” said Ted Kitchens, who became the airport’s director in October. Fed-Ex and UPS both have separate facilities at the airport and Wiggins Airways is based there. Wiggins is an all-cargo airline that operates smaller jets and propeller planes that bring packages from smaller airports to be added to the big carriers’ jet loads.

Kitchens said he couldn’t break down exactly how much of the airport’s income was based on cargo versus passenger service since the two are often intertwined, but he admitted that cargo can never replace passenger service for an airport like Manchester, which has a $45 million operating budget. Still, he said, it’s an important part of the economic mix.

Kitchens said the general-aviation business, which consists of private planes, is robust, and the airport is working to lease some land it owns “outside the fence” to non-aviation users.

In the long run, however, boosting the number of occupied seats on flights at Manchester is key. Kitchens has been making the public-appearance rounds in New Hampshire and neighboring states for the past couple of months, urging people to rethink whether they really want to fly out of Boston’s Logan International Airport instead of Manchester. On Saturday, Kitchens will host a question-and-answer session with members of the public at 11 a.m. at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire in Londonderry.

The total number of passengers flying through New Hampshire’s biggest airport has been falling for years and has now declined by more than half from a peak of 4.5 million in 2005, when seven airlines had scheduled service at Manchester, to about 1.9 million last year. Only seven or eight of the 15 airline gates are regularly used in the main terminal.

At the same time, business at Boston’s airport has been soaring: It topped 40 million passengers last year, the largest in the airport’s history.

Here’s another look at what has happened: In 2004, Logan carried about six times as many passengers as Manchester. Last year, it carried 21 times as many passengers as Manchester.

The passenger decline has hit Manchester airport’s bottom line in several ways. Its parking revenue has declined, although that may partly reflect an increase in online ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, while sales at airport stores and restaurants have suffered, which affects the airport’s cut.

Manchester isn’t alone in this situation. Many regional airports throughout the country have seen declines as airline companies have merged, which tends to free up space for airlines at larger airports. Kitchens gave a hypothetical example at a large airport like Logan.

“Let’s say Americans needed 15 gates and U.S. Airways needed 10 to run their full schedule. When they merged, they didn’t need 25 gates, they might only need 20 – that would free up five gates,” he said.

Those gates could lure in the low-cost airlines that once had to settle for regional airports, drawing away passengers that had gone to the secondary airports for cheaper flights.

“With the consolidation of the industry, pricing pressure went down and the margins got pretty fat for legacy carriers. ... Ultra-low-cost airlines that would normally not have come into these markets saw an opportunity to go into large markets. They said, ‘hey, we can undercut those guys by 25-30% and still make healthy margins,’ ” Kitchens said.

For Manchester, the iconic example is Southwest Airlines, which arrived here in 1998 and helped propel more than a decade of strong expansion; at times, Manchester was the fastest-growing airport in the country.

Ominously, in 2004 the then-new low-cost airline JetBlue arrived in the market but decided to set up shop at Logan Airport rather than Manchester. Kitchens said this was reflective of the airline consolidation that caused “a macro-level change in the structure of the industry” from about 2005 to 2013.

Over that period, newer ultra-low-cost airlines like Frontier and Spirit have also come to Boston. In 2009, even Southwest began flying out of Logan, although it still carries about half the traffic at Manchester airport. Perhaps most painfully, ultra-low-cost Allegiant Air decided to use the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth for its New Hampshire flights, rather than Manchester.

“We’re the only New England airport that doesn’t really have a low-cost carrier on the field. We’re working to change that,” Kitchens said.

Kitchens thinks 2013 or thereabouts was the end of that era, and the trend toward more flights into and out of the large airports under the “hub and spoke” model will transition back to more point-to-point service, making regional airports like Manchester more attractive.

Luring back New Hampshire residents who have been flying out of Boston because of lower fares is the next step, he said. It isn’t made easier by online ticket buying; people who sort offers by price will almost always see Logan flights before Manchester flights.

Kitchens argues, as have many airport officials before him, that the cost and hassle of getting to Boston’s airport usually overwhelm the lower cost and that flying out of Manchester is more convenient than people may think.

“We have a lot of connectivity for an airport our size. There’s a perception that you can’t get there from here,” he said.

If you go

What: A public question-and-answer session with Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Director Tim Kitchens at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire. Free. There’s a $5 charge to tour the museum, which is inside an Art Deco building that once served as the airport’s main terminal.

When: Saturday, May 11, at 11 a.m.

Where: Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, 27 Navigator Road in Londonderry. The museum is alongside the main runway of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport but is located on the far side as compared to the main passenger terminal.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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