PORTLAND – Passenger numbers at the Portland International Jetport have slowly started to climb, signaling a possible end to four consecutive years of declining traffic.
In the first six months of this year, 747,224 passengers flew in and out of Portland, a 1.4 percent increase over the same period last year, when there were 736,830 passengers.
An increase in visitors is good for business in Portland, officials say.
“We’re happy with any modest gains,” said the airport’s director, Paul Bradbury. “There is not going to be a lot of population growth in the Portland area, so our (passenger) growth will be determined by how well we can capture a greater share of the market.”
Portland’s passenger traffic is ahead of the national figure, which increased by about 0.3 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.
Most airlines have started to make money again, which has allowed them to hold off on increasing fares further, said Charlie Leocha, director of the nonprofit group Consumer Travel Alliance, located in the Washington, D.C., area. That means more people are willing to spend the money to travel by air.
“People are starting to get more comfortable flying again,” Leocha said.
David Giachetti and Mary MacLeod were preparing to fly back to the Washington area on a direct flight last week after vacationing in Maine. MacLeod said they like to travel as much as possible, but high fares make them think carefully about flying.
“We’re lucky we have a lot of options, living in the capital area,” she said.
Giachetti said, “At some point you just have to pay what a flight costs if you want to do anything.”
The Portland International Jetport is owned and operated by the city but is funded without taxpayer revenue. Five airlines — United, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and US Airways — fly out of Portland to 12 nonstop destinations.
As at most airports across the country, Portland’s passenger numbers started to decline in 2009, when the recession hit.
The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics compiles passenger data from airports across the country. For comparisons and to avoid duplication, the bureau counts passengers only from the airport of origin.
Using those numbers, Portland had an 8.8 percent decrease in passengers from 2008 to 2012. The decrease nationally over that time was 0.8 percent.
The two regional airports closest to Portland were on opposite ends of the spectrum: Manchester-Boston Regional Airport decreased by 33.8 percent from 2008 to 2012. Bangor International Airport, on the other hand, had a passenger increase of 29.1 percent over that period.
One of the biggest changes in the airline industry over the past decade has been a steady drop in the number of flights offered. Portland started losing flights well before the recession. After topping out at 18,200 in 2004, the number dipped to 13,757 in 2012.
But Bradbury said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Airlines are putting bigger planes with more capacity into service,” he said. “We lose some frequency of service, but it’s more efficient and profitable for the airlines.”
The industry measure for how full a plane is is called the load factor. In 2003, the average load factor for flights from Portland was 67.4 percent. In 2012, it was 82.1 percent. That shift is mirrored in national numbers.
“The consumer doesn’t necessarily win in that scenario,” Leocha said. “You have an airline that used to offer four flights a day to a particular destination, now offers three.”
From a consumer standpoint, price is still the biggest factor in whether to fly, and airports have no control over fares.
Nationally, fares have been increasing steadily since 2009, although the increase for the first quarter of 2013 was the smallest in five years, suggesting prices are leveling off.
But fare numbers are a little misleading, experts say.
The national average round-trip fare for a domestic flight was $374 in 2012. A decade earlier the average was $312, but if adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index, it would be $402 in today’s market.
Bradbury said Portland ranks below average among 26 similar-size markets in average fare. From July 2012 through June 13, the average domestic one-way fare from Portland was $188. The average for the other airports was $197.
Teresa Kinder and Ned Cunningham of Bloomington, Ind., visited Maine recently and flew through Portland. They said the fares were reasonable.
“I wouldn’t say we fly all that much, but we try to if the price is right,” Kinder said.
Leocha said airlines have no doubt realized that if fares rise too much, travelers will just stay home.
The trend in the airline industry over the last several years has been toward mergers and consolidation of airlines. Delta bought Northwest, United absorbed Continental and Southwest purchased AirTran.
The latest proposed merger is between US Airways and American, although the U.S. Department of Justice has surprised the airline industry by filing an antitrust lawsuit to stop the merger.
Bradbury said the latest proposed merger could help Portland’s airport, which already has US Airways service but not American.
“That brand would be helpful to us,” he said. “We have a lot of non-stop capacity to the Washington, D.C., market but only one nonstop airline option to Chicago.”
Leocha said his group opposes the merger.
“We think the era of consolidation is over,” he said. “There is a feeling, and the Justice Department thinks so, too, that airlines have gotten a little too cozy.”
Whether the merger happens or not, Bradbury said last year’s completion of a $75 million,145,000-square-foot terminal expansion puts Portland in a good position to draw new airlines.
“There is a question of whether Southwest would have come in without that expansion,” he said. Southwest began flying out of Portland in April.
Bradbury also believes Portland is well positioned to continue seeing modest increases in passenger traffic.
“We’re always going to lose some traffic to Logan (International Airport in Boston),” he said, “but I believe once people experience the convenience and overall value of flying from Portland, they will stay.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: