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MIT report: Declining flights at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport a continuing trend

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 28. 2013 10:12PM
Low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines, which fueled the rise of regional airports like Manchester's are expanding service at larger airports and cutting flights in smaller cities. (FILE PHOTO)

A new study shows Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is not alone in declining flights, a trend predicted to continue for smaller airports.

The report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the number of domestic flights decreased overall 14 percent from 2007 to 2012 as airlines battled recession and volatile fuel prices. Manchester’s airport suffered a 41.2 percent decline during that period.

“The nation’s small-and medium-sized airports have been disproportionately affected by these reductions in service,” according to the study released this month by MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. “Recent airline behavior appears to signal a trend toward consolidation of service at the largest airports, with fewer direct flights available from smaller airports.”

The study classifies Manchester as a small hub. According to the study, small hubs saw an overall 18.2 percent decrease in flights over the five-year period. Medium hubs, which include airports serving cities like Cincinnati and Memphis, took an even bigger hit, at 26.2 percent overall.

Brian O’Neill, deputy director of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, said the results listed in the study were little surprise to anyone who has been in the field of air travel over the last decade.

“We’ve always known we weren’t alone in the challenges we were facing,” O’Neill said Tuesday.

Mergers among the nation’s largest carriers and Southwest Airlines’ transition to service in the large hubs have changed the industry significantly. The MIT study noted Providence, which like Manchester was once an attractive option to travelers who wanted to avoid traveling through Boston to Logan Airport, was one of the most affected among medium-sized hubs. As in Manchester, Southwest has reduced service from Providence’s T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I.

“We expect to see these medium hubs begin to resemble current small hubs in domestic service selection over the next five years, potentially increasing congestion as airlines and passengers alike continue to gravitate toward large airports,” the study said.

Providence flights were down 37.6 percent in the study. Pittsburgh (39.7), Memphis (40.6) and Cincinnati (64.4) — once a regional hub before the Delta-Northwest merger — had more severe decreases.

O’Neill said Manchester has been trying to regain some of its foothold in the market, but it has been difficult because of the overall shift toward larger airports.

Travelers are willing to make the trip to Boston if it means better deals and more available flights, O’Neill said.

“A lot of things have happened between 2005 and 2012 that dramatically changed the overall aviation landscape in New England,” O’Neill said. “We’re talking to the airlines and trying to state the case we need more flights here.”

O’Neill said the last few months have offered signs of hope. Delta has added a fourth daily flight to New York-LaGuardia. U.S. Airways has expanded its flights to Washington-National and the carrier’s hub in Charlotte, N.C.

O’Neill said figures over the last few months have been more stable, which he hopes indicates a turnaround for Manchester.

“It’s a little early for us to go out and to talk about a real shift. You never know what’s going to happen in June, July, August and September, but there are some very promising signs,” he said.

O’Neill said the airport will continue talks with other airlines as well as those already serving Manchester, which he noted is still easier to get to and from than Logan for passengers in northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

“We’ve got a market here we feel is being under-served,” O’Neill said.

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