August 20. 2018 9:27AM

Manchester's new airport chief did his homework, say city officials who hired him

By MICHAEL COUSINEAU
New Hampshire Union Leader


MANCHESTER — When Theodore “Ted” Kitchens met a search committee seeking the next airport director, he came armed.

The Houston airport executive last month presented a spiral-bound report filled with charts along with a strategy on how to reverse a more than decade-long decline in passenger numbers at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

“It showed how serious he was taking this opportunity and not just talking a good game but showing the kind of analysis he had done both in terms of the past and what the potential for what the future is,” said Patrick Duffy, a member of the search committee who served on the Manchester Airport Authority from 1990 to 2000.

Aldermen last week voted to hire Kitchens over four other finalists, including two internal candidates. Kitchens was the only one to present such an analysis, Duffy said.

After peaking at 4.33 million passengers in 2005, the state’s largest airport has seen its passengers numbers decline every year, dipping below 2 million fliers last year. For the first six months of this year, passenger totals are 2.1 percent below last year’s figures.

Rhode Island’s main airport and Boston’s Logan International Airport are thriving this year, and last year, Portland, Maine’s airport set an all-time passenger mark.

Kitchens’ 11-page report said airline consolidation and Manchester’s location limits its opportunities to attract new airlines and it should focus on expanding the carriers it already hosts.

“The traditional approach to air service development of relegating the efforts to the airport director and governing authority no longer apply,” wrote Kitchens, general manager of George Bush Continental Airport, the nation’s 13th largest airport.

“I believe community leaders must make the same shift in the way they view air service development that they did in economic development 30 years ago,” he wrote. “Economic development was about recruiting new businesses to your community — and to a certain degree it remains an important element — however, today the basis of economic development is centered on retention of the existing business portfolio and identifying ways to help these businesses grow.”

Kitchens said he would focus on convincing Delta and United to add more flights out of Manchester. (United, however, recently announced it was ending its Manchester-to-Chicago service effective Sept. 5, a fact noted in Kitchens report.)

A United spokesman couldn’t be reached.

Airline mergers in recent years as well as Southwest starting service in Boston in 2009 were not friendly developments for Manchester.

The total number of departing airline seats fell from 2.6 million in 2008 to 1.2 million in 2017, according to Kitchens’ report.

Southwest, which offered 29 daily departing flights in 2008, today offers 12. In 2008, Southwest flew from Manchester to seven destinations, including Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Today, Southwest, which has just over half the market in Manchester, flies from Manchester to four destinations, with Chicago the furthest western nonstop.

“This is matching our service with the needs of local travelers,” Southwest spokesman David Landson said this month.

Kitchens also has worked at airports in Atlanta and Virginia.

“When you’re talking to airlines, they need to have a sense that you have a breadth of experiences, that you’re not just talking your experience in Manchester,” Duffy said.

“What he is suggesting to be done is what he has been involved in other airports,” he said.

Calling him “warm and open,” search committee member Liz Hitchcock said Kitchens was “very interested in learning from everybody at the airport because there’s going to be a long period to work close with everyone.

“He’s going to have to do a lot more work than look at the numbers, to create relationships to understand the culture that exists at the airport currently,” said Hitchcock, noting he was the committee’s unanimous choice.

Two Manchester airport executives also were finalists: interim airport director Tom Malafronte and Carlton Braley, assistant director for operations and facilities. The mayor’s office declined to name the three other finalists.

Braley, a Manchester native with 24 years in the airport industry, said he believed he “had the correct vision and mission to lead the airport through the next decade.”

As for working for a new boss, he said, “There is always some excitement during these transition periods, and I look forward to it.”

Malafronte didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Kitchens and officials at Houston Airport System, which manages three area airports, didn’t make themselves available for comment last week.

Duffy doesn’t expect to see changes overnight once Kitchens starts in Manchester on Oct. 1.

“It’s going to take some time,” Duffy said. “How long has it taken, this deterioration has occurred over a period of time.”

Duffy said Kitchens will need to work with the airport staff, the airlines and community members at large.

“He has to reach out not just to the business community but other aspects of the community interested in having enhanced air service out of Manchester,” Duffy said.

“He really talked about how it is a community effort,” Hitchcock said. “He really did his homework.”

mcousineau@unionleader.com