New England’s major airports moving to taxi out of the recession

as the economy slowly starts to recover, three of New England’s busiest airports are well-positioned for strong, complementary growth.

Boston’s Logan International Airport is already posting passenger gains. T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island, and Manchester–Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire are still losing passengers, but analysts say they should also rebound in the near term. The goal is to have the two smaller airports hold their own and provide relief to Logan, so that the Boston airport doesn’t become overly congested.

“Right now, we’re as close to equilibrium [between the three airports] as you could get,” says Deborah Meehan, chief operating officer of SH&E, an international aviation consulting firm headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Big Dig made getting to Logan Airport a snap, drawing back Boston-area passengers who’d been lured away by the easy access and cheaper flights of Manchester and T.F. Green. But even as passengers began to rediscover the virtues of Logan, there were clouds gathering on the horizon. “We began to see a decline in traffic almost two years ago, long before anyone was talking the “R” word,” says Tom Kinton, Massport’s executive director.

An uptick in air traffic may mean that the regional economy is ready to come off life support.If a decline in air traffic can be a precursor to a recession, then an uptick may mean that the regional economy is ready to come off life support. At Logan, last July, after 18 straight months of declining traffic, “the bleeding stopped,” according to Kinton.

Overall, passenger traffic at Logan ended last year down roughly 2.3 percent from 2008, but since the summer there have been steady month-to-month increases. The total number of airport passengers reached nearly 1.8 million in January, up from 1.6 million during the same month a year ago, an 11 percent increase.

Passengers are streaming back to Logan in part to take advantage of discount air carriers. Southwest Airlines, which already operated out of T.F. Green and Manchester, set up shop at Logan along with three other budget carriers in the first eight months of last year, which surprised Kinton. “First of all, the economy was terrible, and to have four new airlines in a down economy — we don’t see that in a good economy,” he says.

Budget carriers swooped in to take advantage of Boston’s strong business and leisure markets. Southwest, for example, was able to find room at Logan because the 2008 Delta–Northwest Airlines merger freed up gates.

“We wanted to open up in Logan because we felt that we weren’t capturing the business within that central financial district, the downtown Boston area,” says Southwest spokesperson Paul Flaningan.

Manchester and T.F. Green have been hard hit by the recession and have seen steep passenger traffic declines. Manchester saw its passenger traffic plummet by about 14 percent last year (Southwest was off roughly 11 percent) and by 4.5 percent in 2008. Last year, T.F. Green’s passenger numbers were down almost 8 percent, with nearly 5 percent fewer people flying Southwest.

But Southwest isn’t deterred by the falloff at T. F. Green and Manchester. Flaningan says that planes out of both cities are “full” and the company is “absolutely committed” to the smaller airports that it has served for more than a decade.

The decline in passenger traffic at T.F. Green and Manchester isn’t unique to New England, according to Meehan. “Larger metropolitan areas are going to recover faster than the smaller areas are, based on the strength of the economy,” she says.

Airports are vital players in a region where people fly at a rate 80 percent higher than the national average, according to the 2006 New England Regional Airport System Plan. Concerns about congestion at Logan led officials from the six New England states and the Federal Aviation Administration to study better ways to utilize the smaller regional airports — which, in turn, would help improve the Boston facility’s performance.

Logan will always be the primary international facility for the region, says Kevin Dillon, president of the Rhode Island Airport Corp., which runs the Providence area facility. But “T.F. Green plays a key role as a ‘reliever’ [to Logan], certainly on the domestic front and hopefully on the international front,” he says. Beyond that, the airport also serves the “very large and attractive” Providence market, he adds.

If the recovery is genuine, smaller metro areas should see more passengers in near future. Both Manchester and T.F. Green are positioning themselves to take advantage of an economic upswing. The New Hampshire airport is currently trying to attract discount carrier JetBlue, while also working to boost its regional ground transportation links to the rest of New Hampshire and Boston.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

At the Rhode Island airport, Dillon says that all its carriers except Continental have added either additional seats or additional routes, Ground transportation upgrades are in the works, too. The MBTA is extending the Providence-Stoughton commuter rail line to a new airport intermodal center that will see limited service by the end of the year.

A decade ago, Manchester and T.F. Green couldn’t attract passengers from their own areas, let alone encroach on Logan’s service area, according to Meehan. The arrival of Southwest in New England changed all that. With Southwest and other budget carriers now at Logan, the possibility for delays and congestion increases and the smaller airports can take the pressure off. “In the long run, it’s a very good thing for Logan to have two such strong airports in such close proximity,” Meehan says.