What Happened? A look at MHT’s falling passenger numbers

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.

The Competition

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.  

Outside view of the Manchester Boston regional airport MHT gate area.
Back when you could spot US Airways parked on the tarmac

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.

Looking forward

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.

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Monti
Writing about aviation and points. Specifically interested in Australia and New England regional airports.
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5 Comments

  1. I actually believe that MHT will be mired in this malaise until such time that Logan starts to choke on its own success. Indeed, Southwest might feel a need to be there. But at what cost? They can’t turn planes around nearly as fast there as they do at MHT, which costs them money (extra fuel needed for the inevitable conga lines at Logan). Furthermore, they cannot raise fares to cover those costs because the business will slide to JetBlue and Delta. But back to MHT: I’d like to see more East-West flying from them. DEN, PHX, LAS…all cities Southwest flew to (and successfully). Bring those back. As a business traveler, I want multiple flight options should something ‘go sideways.’ I want to fly over cold-weather cities like MDW and connect in warmer places if I’m headed to LAX or SFO. In the end, I think if BOS gets too painful for airlines, they may shuffle some flights up to MHT in order to save their more lucrative services.

    • PHX was one of my favorite destinations that has been cut. I’d love to see that and other horizontal flights return.

  2. Nice article about my favorite airport — MHT! I would like to see improved westbound flight options, because it’s difficult to connect. Possible western destinations include Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, SFO or SJC, MSP, Toronto and Seattle. We need additional southbound flights, because there’s a large demand for that from New England. Possible destinations are JFK, FLL, RDU, and MIA, many of which will help with international connections. We need service to existing destinations to be upgraded, e.g. larger aircraft, more frequency, and/or lower fares. Not to be overlooked, we have serious problems with airlines cutting service over the winter months, and lacking good solutions when cancellations occur. It’s not a good option to send travelers to Boston during a snowstorm. Overall Manchester’s biggest problem is high fares that are out of wack with Boston.

    • I’ve experienced the cancellation problem. I had a flight the week after the 737 MAX grounding that got canceled. Boston was the only option.

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