Manchester Airport hopes new flights bring new passengers — and a return to earlier heights

By TODD BOOKMAN

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 04-01-2024 4:00 PM

On its best days, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport has none of the annoyances that plague most other airports: no long delays at TSA, no shuttle buses, no lines to check a bag or buy a bad sandwich.

But that’s not necessarily good news for the airport.

The number of passengers passing through Manchester-Boston airport these days — 1.3 million flyers in 2023 — remains well below pre-pandemic levels, and is a fraction of the foot traffic the airport saw in the mid 2000s, when more than 4 million travelers came through in a single year.

“We're not back to where we want to be. I mean, that's just plain and simple,” said Ted Kitchens, Manchester-Boston’s director since October 2018.

Kitchens, who previously worked at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, is optimistic about a turnaround. In the past few months, there have been a flurry of new routes announced out of Manchester, including direct flights to Minneapolis and Charleston, S.C. A reader’s poll in Travel + Leisure Magazine also ranked Manchester the top domestic airport in 2023.

But headwinds persist. Just two years after it launched flights at MHT, low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines said in February that it was suspending its operations for the summer, citing, in part, low seasonal demand out of Manchester.

During a recent tour of the airport, the ticketing area highlighted all that’s good about the experience at Manchester — at least from the passenger’s perspective. There was almost no line at security. Plenty of seats were available at a restaurant. Travelers checking luggage at a Southwest counter breezed through the process. And there was plenty of elbow room at baggage claim, as recent arrivals milled about waiting for their luggage.

“This is actually a pretty good crowd right now,” said Kitchens, armed with a walkie talkie that stayed quiet. “This is a good energy right now. I like it. Need more of it.”

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When Kitchens started at Manchester-Boston five years ago, one of his priorities was attracting new airlines and new routes. That process plays out behind closed doors in meetings and phone calls with airline executives, but he said the pandemic killed any momentum the airport may have been generating to add flights.

“The best thing that we've got to sell is what we used to be: We used to have 4 million total passengers here: 2 million going out, 2 million coming in,” he said.

The airport’s peak volume came in 2005, when it reached more than 4. 2 million passengers; at that time, there were 90 flights a day to 21 destinations. Later in the decade, Southwest — which remains the airport’s largest carrier, accounting for approximately half of all travelers — began offering non-stop direct routes as far west as Phoenix and Las Vegas.

But the global recession and a spike in fuel costs, combined with industry consolidation, chipped away at the number of routes offered out of MHT.

By the end of the 2000s, Southwest made a tactical decision to pull more flights out of Manchester to compete directly with JetBlue out of Boston Logan International Airport.

Today, there are approximately two dozen flights a day. But later this year, Sun Country Airlines will begin offering direct flights to Minneapolis. Avelo Airlines will begin serving Greenville, S.C., and Breeze will launch routes to Charlston, S.C.

Travelers can already access other major east coast hubs, including Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., as well as Chicago.

The top destination out of MHT, according to Kitchens, remains Orlando. While there is a perception that getting to Disney World may cost more out of Manchester than Logan, Kitchens said that is not necessarily the case.

While some flights and some destinations are pricier, he said that passengers can find parity or even cheaper flights if they purchase far enough in advance, and if they’re willing to deal with a layover.

“You just have to be early. You can't be the person on Thursday saying, hey, where are we going to go this weekend?” he said.

An informal scan of flights for later this year showed higher costs traveling direct to destinations including Chicago and Orlando out of Manchester versus Logan, but cheaper options to Fort Myers, Fl.

Ticket prices, of course, aren't everything. Daily parking at MHT runs $14 a day, while the economy lot at Logan typically runs $32.

“I also like to remind people that you may think you're flying out nonstop out of Boston, but your first flight is in your car or the bus,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by some passengers on a recent Friday.

“I think it's a very easy airport. I think it is just convenient and when I'm in Manchester, it's much easier to come here than it is to go to Boston,” said Mark Philippi, a business traveler from Chicago.

Other travelers noted that the parking garage was just a short walk from the main terminal, with plenty of available spots.

“I live seven minutes away,” said Brian Nolen of Bedford on why he chose Manchester-Boston for the first leg of his flight that afternoon to Arizona. “Why would I be a glutton for punishment?”

‘Chicken and egg proposition’

Regional airports around the country have faced challenges as the broader airline industry continues to rebound in the wake of the pandemic.

Portland Jetport, in Maine, has seen its passenger volumes return and now exceed pre-pandemic levels, but T.F. Green International Airport in Providence is still below its 2019 passenger numbers. Logan has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic volume: there were 40.8 million travelers in 2023, versus 42.5 million in 2019.

Airlines continue to struggle with a shortage of pilots, which further constrains the number of airports they can serve, according to Robert Mann, Jr., an industry consultant and former airline executive based in New York.

He said while travelers may appreciate the ease of a quieter airport, “it's a chicken and egg proposition, right? You find customers driving right by the convenient airport to the one that has the service.”

As long as airlines can wring out good profits, they don’t mind making customers schlep to Logan. Kitchens also makes the case that residents should choose Manchester-Boston because of its impact on the local economy, and the roughly 2,000 people who work jobs connected to the airport.

“Fly local,” he said. “We all hear about shop local, you know, and how important Main Street is. Well, our main street just happens to be 150 feet wide and 9,250 feet long. It connects you to the global economy.”