April 17. 2013 2:49AM

Manchester airport's credit rating downgraded

By Ted Seifer
New Hampshire Union Leader

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)

The credit rating agency Fitch has downgraded its bond rating for the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

The downgrade, from A- to B+++ with a negative outlook, is another hit for the airport, which has seen a significant drop in passengers since 2005.

However, the airport's deputy director, Brian O'Neill, told aldermen on Tuesday that the Fitch downgrade was not a major setback.

"The airport is extremely disappointed and we're challenging the negative outlook," O'Neill said. "But we certainly feel this evaluation was based on passenger activity and didn't consider other aspects of the airport's operations. We're in a strong financial position."

O'Neill noted that Moody's, another major rating agency, had maintained its rating for Manchester, and the airport's ratings were on par with those of Providence, R.I., and Portland, Maine.

In its rating, released earlier this month, Fitch noted the downgrade "reflects the airport's increased risk profile as a result of steady declines in passenger traffic due to competition at Boston Logan" airport.

O'Neill acknowledged that air travel out of Manchester has declined, due in large part to Southwest Airlines pulling its flights from the airport.

"It's just a very challenging environment. We've been highlighting opportunities and begging (the airlines) to take a chance on us, and we're just starting to see the fruits," O'Neill said, pointing to additional US Airways flights to Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C., that began this month.

O'Neill said that Fitch's rating will not affect the rates the airport is paying on $174.2 million in bonds. He said the airport likely wouldn't refinance its bonds, if it does so, until 2015.

Mayor Ted Gatsas invited O'Neill to speak about the downgrade, which he said he found out about through the city's finance director.

"I didn't want someone to just pick up the paper and find out about this," he said.

Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur criticized Airport Director Mark Brewer for not mentioning the downgrade when he testified at a budget hearing last week.

"Whatever problems we're having, someone has to take the reins for it," he said.

Levasseur also reiterated criticism of Brewer's extensive travel, which is related to his chairmanship of a national airline directors trade group.

O'Neill said Brewer was "in the office today, but he took ill."

Alderman At-Large Dan O'Neil defended Brewer and the leadership of the airport. "I don't think it's all doom and gloom, I think it's a bump in the road," he said.