The Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) has been struggling. Despite the convenience for those north of Boston, and recent improvements to the terminal and rental car facilities, New Hampshire’s largest airport has seen a decline in passengers year over year. While it may be easy to point the finger to rising ticket prices, fewer flights and fewer destinations, these are all symptoms of a larger issue; Manchester is losing in a tug-of-war with neighboring airports.
The Southwest Issue
Obviously Boston Logan is the major airport in the New England area, but it suffers from all the same issues that plague any major airport; It’s hard to get to, parking is expensive, lines are long, and delays can all too easily snowball. Flying out of smaller regional airports can alleviate many such headaches, which is why New Hampshire’s Manchester-Boston Regional Airport has been my first choice for some time. While small airports generally mean putting up with feeder routes operated by regional airlines, Southwest made MHT an exception to that rule. With a fleet of 737s and nonstop service to far-off destinations such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, no other airline served this little airport better. But that all started to change when Southwest got gates at Boston.
In 2009, Southwest launched service from Boston to hubs in Baltimore and Chicago, offering 10 daily flights. Since then, the airline has been cutting flights from Manchester in favor of more in and out of Boston. Today, Southwest has only 4 regular nonstop destinations from MHT; Chicago, Baltimore, Orlando, and Tampa. Meanwhile their presence at Boston has grown immensely, now with 14 nonstop destinations. That reduction in flights is the most noticeable cause for reduced passenger numbers.
Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
As you can see above, passenger numbers quickly flipped when Southwest moved flights to Boston. With Southwest moving the lion’s share of Manchester’s passengers this dragged down the overall passenger numbers.
Just like all businesses (except internet service providers, but that’s a rant for another time) MHT faces competition. Boston Logan is the biggest competition Manchester faces. Being a hub or focus city for several airlines and featuring over 60 international destinations nonstop, no airport in New England can compete with Logan on options. More flights, more airlines, more nonstop destination, and lower fares is incentive enough for people from around New England to make their way into the city. How can Manchester stand out? Convenience.
People are willing to pay for convenience. Acting as an easy alternative to the big city, MHT boasts cheap parking, short lines, and an easy to navigate experience. For a lot of people, Manchester is a far more convenient option which should give it an advantage. When it comes tor travel, many consumers already feel they will be inconvenienced anyway and look for the lowest price possible. For those willing to pay for it, convenience in travel goes beyond the departing airport. Putting up with Boston for a nonstop flight or better departure time that isn’t offered at MHT can be worth the hassle.
Looking at the greater Boston area, Manchester isn’t the only game in town trying to sell convenience. To the south, Providence TF Green airport in Rhode Island also serves the area and features train service from Amtrak and the MBTA Commuter Rail for easy access to the city and surrounding area. That is far better than the bus service provided at Manchester. Of course greater Boston is just one business case for our airport.
The Manchester Boston Regional Airport also acts as the gateway to New Hampshire and northern New England. That’s a great additional market to work with, but is sharing those passengers with other airports in New England. To the north, Burlington, VT (BTV) and Portland, ME (PWM) each host their own airport, and compete heavily for New England passengers. Both BTV and PWM boast the same advantages as Manchester, have plenty of local charm in the terminal, and offer airlines lower fees. In addition to all that, their greater distance from Logan, or any major airport, grants them a geographical advantage in retaining local customers. And as if that weren’t enough, MHT even faces growing competition from within the Granite state.
Enter Player Two
The Portsmouth International Tradeport (PSM) hosts Pease air force base as well as general aviation. A small passenger terminal with a single jetbridge went virtually unused for years, with the exception of occasional charter flights, until 2013 when Allegiant began operating flights to Florida. Today, Allegiant flies to Punta Gorda and Orlando/Sanford with seasonal flights to Myrtle Beach, Savannah, and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. The service has been a big success for Pease which saw over 43,000 passengers in 2018 and over almost 53,000 by September this year. That is a massive increase from the 16,000 passengers in 2014, the first full year of operation. Following this success, Pease is now expanding the terminal to allow more space for passengers and an additional jetbridge. Located only 45 miles from the Manchester Regional airport, Pease’ rapid growth shows an increasing demand for flights out of southern New Hampshire.
How does MHT improve?
The easy answer is more passengers, more flights, more destinations, and additional airlines. More service with more competition brings lower prices and more passengers. Problem solved! How do you do that? Not so easy.
The best way is to adjust fees. Airports, like airlines, are a business. Both charge for services, but instead of bag fees airports charge landing fees, gate rentals and other services on the ground. These fees factor into the cost per enplaned passenger, or the average cost per passenger for an airline out of a given airport. Higher fees and fewer flights equal a higher cost per passenger. Lowering those fees to be more competitive can increase business.
While my disdain for ultra-low-cost carriers and their “gotcha” pricing structures runs deep, MHT needs another airline and more budget options. Being able to lower prices and attract a low-cost airline like Spirit or Frontier could prove vital to growing passenger numbers and reviving the airport.
Alternatively, any business could increase revenue by improving customer experience. To that end, the airport finished construction on a new car rental facility in 2016. While it is also important to note that Manchester has a major cargo presence which generates revenue as well, that is a different topic.
The airport’s new director, Theodore Kitchens, has been working to turn things around and drum up new business. Part of that is being done with lowered fee incentives for new airlines and existing airlines who open new routes to desirable destinations. Another part is increased marketing to draw more passengers into existing flights.
With the hard work of airport directors and perhaps a little bit of luck, 2020 may see passenger numbers begin to climb once again.
What nonstop flights would you like to see out of Manchester? Let me know in the comments below.