Is Plattsburgh’s gain Burlington International Airport’s loss?
By Pat Willwerth, Free Press Staff Writer FREEPRESS.COM
Tom Long, airport manager at Plattsburgh International Airport, counted 23 passengers boarding a flight to Boston one morning last week. It was US Airways Flight 4770, and a new era in air service in the Champlain Valley took off with it.
The flight was the first of a new route between the small New York airport and Boston’s Logan International Airport, a deal that has Colgan Air Inc. flying three 34-passenger turboprops a day to the Hub. Long counted 22 passengers on the second flight to Boston that afternoon.
“The numbers, when I see them, look pretty good,” Long said.
The 34-passenger turboprops are an upgrade over the nine-seat Cessnas formerly flown by Cape Air and offer the only air service to New England’s largest city from either side of Lake Champlain. Burlington International Airport has coveted the route since the last Burlington-to-Boston flight departed more than two years ago.
What was Plattsburgh’s advantage in landing the flight? It receives millions of dollars in federal funding through the Essential Air Service program, enacted after the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act to ensure small communities retain access to the national air transportation system. The funding — for which Burlington is ineligible — subsidizes flights such as the Plattsburgh-to-Boston route.
Colgan is federally subsidized for two flights per day; the third is unsubsidized, Long said.
It is unclear what affect, if any, the improved Plattsburgh service will have on Burlington International. Officials from both airports said they do not adversely affect one another.
“I’m not in competition with Burlington,” Long said.
“I don’t see any real evidence that Plattsburgh has hurt us,” Burlington International Director Brian Searles said. “It’s more of an enhancement to the area,” than a source of competition, he said.
With the beefed-up connection to Boston, Plattsburgh stands to lure more of the Canadian market, which already makes up 85 percent of its travelers. Comparatively, about 40 percent of Burlington’s passengers come from north of the border, Searles said.
One advantage Plattsburgh offers is free parking. It costs $10 a day to park at Burlington International Airport, and between $13 and $35 a day at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau Internation Airport in Canada.
Plattsburgh and Burlington also have an advantage over Canadian airports to destinations in the United States: the cost of a ticket.
“There’s a fare differential,” said Robert McEwing, director of planning and development at Burlington International. “Typically it’s less to fly out of the border airports … than it is to fly out of the Canadian airports.”
A July 1 search on Internet travel website Orbitz showed that it would cost $103 after fees to fly one-way on any of the three flights from Plattsburgh to Boston the next day. The cheapest flight from Montreal-Trudeau to Boston on the same day would cost $417 after fees and included a layover at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The flight from Plattsburgh is nonstop and would take five fewer hours than the flight from Montreal-Trudeau.
The Plattsburgh-to-Boston flights could also appeal to international travelers.
A July 1 Orbitz search of July 2 one-way flights to three randomly chosen international cities showed it would cost $51 less to fly to Dublin and $140 less to fly to Paris from Plattsburgh than from Burlington. It would cost $47 more to fly to Sydney from Plattsburgh than from Burlington, but that difference would be made up after five days of parking fees.
It’s no wonder that securing a flight to Boston remains a top priority for Searles.
“It’s a market we need to get back into,” he said. Every month, Burlington airport sends a representative to at meet with at least one airline in an attempt to secure more routes, Searles said. Boston is a major focus.
Burlington offered flights to Boston until January 2008, when Big Sky Airlines, which flew on behalf of Delta Airlines, went out of business.
“We ran into the recession” around that time, Searles said, which made it difficult to persuade another airline to pick up the route. The number of available seats on flights dropped about 20 percent nationwide since 2007, Searles said.
“It’s tough to sell expansion of service in a market that’s shrinking,” Searles said, adding that seats on flights out of Burlington dropped less than 10 percent in the same period as the 20 percent nationwide drop.
One airline offered to provide the Burlington-to-Boston service if the airport would pay for every empty seat on every flight, which was not a feasible option, Searles said. He declined to name the airline.
Searles remains optimistic. He said that as the economy improves and airlines start increasing service, Burlington will be able to secure a route to Boston.
“We believe capitalism will prevail,” he said.
In the meantime, he only sees one way in which the increased Plattsburgh service will negatively affect Burlington airport.
“The only way it has a direct affect on us, in my opinion, is it makes it more difficult to get an airline to do business with us without a subsidy,” he said.
Other than that, he said the airport across the lake will not take passengers away from the Burlington airport.
“I think there’s enough business for everybody,” Searles said.
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