August 26, 2013

Jetport's passenger numbers looking up

A 1.4% rise through June indicates 2013 may end a four-year slump, spurred by a terminal expansion.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Passenger numbers at the Portland International Jetport have slowly started to climb, signaling a possible end to four consecutive years of declining traffic.

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A US Airways Express prepares to land at the Portland International Jetport last week. US Airways and four other airlines – United, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest – fly out of Portland to 12 nonstop destinations.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Families handle their bags at the jetport. Director Paul Bradbury says the area’s limited population growth means “(passenger) growth will be determined by how well we can capture a greater share of the market.”

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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