Southwest Airlines arrived 25 years ago, fueling a boom that Manchester airport would love to see repeated

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 06-08-2023 4:27 PM

You can forgive folks at Manchester airport for feeling nostalgic Wednesday morning as they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the most important event in its recent history: The 1998 arrival of Southwest Airlines.

“That changed the dynamic overnight,” said Thomas Malafronte, deputy director of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, who was working here at the time. “There weren’t any other low-cost carriers – they were the one for the entire region.”

The 1998 arrival of Southwest when the company was shaking up the industry with a then-unusual plan of concentrating on point-to-point flights out of smaller airports, launched what might be considered Manchester-Boston’s golden age.

Almost overnight the airport turned from a local player into a regional juggernaut with direct flights as far as Las Vegas (which, some say, led to the city’s “ManchVegas” nickname). Passenger traffic boomed from barely 1 million to 4.5 million in 2005, making it the fastest-growing airport in the country at one point, and facilities expanded in all directions, fueling economic growth throughout the state.

Since 2006, however, consolidation in the airline industry and a turn to hub-and-spoke scheduling model that favors big-city airports like Boston’s Logan has kicked the legs out from under regional airports like Manchester-Boston, which is now half-empty and working to recover from the pandemic. Southwest still carries more than half of all passenger traffic at the airport, where it has 65 employees, but it has cut back sharply from its schedule of a decade ago and has many more flights out of Logan Airport, the place it once shunned.

Southwest remains dominant in Manchester only because several other carriers have cut back even more or left entirely.

On Wednesday morning, all that was forgotten as officials from the airport and from Southwest joined with Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig – who grew up close to the airport when it was still called Grenier Field – to mark the anniversary of Southwest’s arrival. They set up banners,  gave a couple short speeches, cut a ribbon with giant scissors and watched a Southwest flight from Baltimore land and release a couple hundred passengers who were puzzled at the hoopla.

“It really lifted up the profile of this airport, and opportunities for people around New England to travel,” Craig told the crowd. “We’re very grateful and look forward to many, many more years of this partnership.”

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There’s no indication that this partnership will expand any time soon, however. Southwest, like most carriers, is struggling with a post-pandemic shortage of pilots and new planes which Justin Fox, the company’s regional manager for airport affairs, said is complicating any plans to expand service.

Manchester-Boston is awaiting the June 21 arrival of Avelo Airlines, a new low-cost carrier that will fly direct to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. If enough people fill those seats, said Airport Director Ted Kitchens, that carrier might add more flights, particularly to Florida. 

“Go try some Carolina barbecue,” Kitchens urged Ginny McGee, who had flown up from Florida to visit family in Massachusetts and Maine and came by the celebration to see what the fuss was about.  

McGee praised Manchester-Boston as compared to bigger airports. “There’s no stress,” she said, echoing the point often made by local officials trying to lure passengers away from Logan Airport, where fares are often much lower and direct service more available.

Avelo follows the 2021 arrival of Spirit Airlines, a much larger low-cost carrier that flies to several southern cities including three in Florida. It brings the number of carriers using Manchester-Boston to five, a welcome increase, and while the total number of destination cities is still less than half the 26 that were served in 2005, and many gates are hardly used.

Manchester-Boston has seen growth in its cargo business as reflected by the huge sign telling Amazon trucks where to go as you enter the airport. The expansion, including the 2022 opening of a 65,000-square-foot cargo building, is part of a general increase in logistics and distribution businesses driven by online shopping. But passenger revenue remains by far the most important income source. 

Manchester airport – the “Boston” tag was added in 2006 – is upgrading runways but has no expansion plans in the works, said Kitchens. The airport has long fretted about bus service by Concord Coach that goes directly to Logan from several New Hampshire cities but doesn’t provide similar service to Manchester-Boston. “That’s something we need to think about, enhancing our ground transportation modes to the airport,” Kitchens said.

The key to expansion, he said, remains traffic volume. 

“If the community supports all our airlines, we’ll be able to add more seats,” said Kitchens.

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