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Manchester-Boston Regional Airport seeing fewer passengers; bus service, JetBlue, rail eyed

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 25. 2013 11:23PM
Manchester-Boston Regional Airport had about 4.3 million passengers during its peak year in 2005. This compares to about 2.5 million passengers expected for 2013. (BRUCE PRESTON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Faced with a loss of market share to Logan International Airport in Boston and a nearly 50 percent drop in passenger traffic since its 2005 heyday, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport needs to cultivate new demand in an era of rapid changes for the airline industry, its director said.

State-subsidized bus service to Logan International Airport got some of the blame for contributing to the airport's loss of market share.

Airport Director Mark P. Brewer told a special committee on airport activities Monday that the Boston Express bus brings 50,000 New Hampshire riders a year along Interstate 93 to Logan - all while bypassing Manchester's airport. That is enough people to fill one Boeing 737 aircraft a day, he said.

"The Boston Express to Logan was one of the worst decisions made by the state of New Hampshire to subsidize bus service to Logan. How can we get out of that?" Manchester Alderman At-Large Daniel O'Neil asked.

Brewer said the state subsidized the bus routes to gain approval for its Interstate 93 widening project.

The bus service used up its first three years of annual $600,000 funding subsidies, Brewer said. It recently won approval for another three-year, $1.7 million subsidy, he added.

Airport officials meanwhile hope to attract a private bus service that would stop at the airport to make it easier for New Hampshire travelers to fly out of Manchester than Logan.

Several lawmakers are exploring a Concord-to-Manchester bus line. In addition, a Portsmouth-to-Manchester bus line is set to be launched in June. Both would have stops at the airport.

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport had about 4.3 million passengers during its peak year in 2005. This compares to about 2.5 million passengers expected for 2013. The number of carriers based at the airport has dropped from seven to four, mostly because of airline mergers. It currently has 47 flights a day flying non-stop to 16 cities.

One step forward, Brewer said, is the anticipated arrival of low-cost carrier JetBlue to Manchester, which would help it compete with Boston and other New England airports.

"JetBlue is everywhere in the New England area, but New Hampshire. They told us it's not a matter of if, it's when (they will locate here)," Brewer told the committee.

"I have a very strong feeling we will have JetBlue operating in this terminal" in the near future, Brewer said. He stressed JetBlue has made no official announcement to date.

But Brewer said it will take more to keep Manchester-Boston Regional Airport the $1.24 billion "economic engine" it currently is to the state.

He said those additional measures include improving Manchester's and New Hampshire's state's profile as a "destination" spot for business and tourism, increased economic development and improving ground transportation that would link the airport to key cities, colleges and universities and other attractions across the state.

Of those who use the airport, 44 percent come from outside New England and come here for business and leisure, airport officials said. Given this, Brewer stressed the importance of marketing New Hampshire and Manchester as a "destination" spot for both business and tourism.

Committee members also discussed the impact New Hampshire's lack of rail travel has on the airport.

Brewer said he met with an international carrier and "the first question out of their mouths ... was do you have rail because the international passenger is looking for rail."

Also key to the airport's future is economic development, Brewer said. He singled out two sites in particular: a 700- to 1,000-acre industrially zoned parcel in Londonderry and an approximately 21-acre tract on airport land where a hotel has indicated an interest in locating.

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