With traffic up 20%, airport focus is on sustaining growth
With airline passenger traffic up nearly 20 percent for the first six months of the year over last year, the challenge is sustaining those numbers while maintaining an overall upward trend toward the holy grail of 6 million passengers annually, says Iftikhar Ahmad.
Ahmad, Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) president and CEO, has been unusually quiet in the past several months. For a while he was standing in front of the news cameras almost monthly to announce the arrival of a new airline and additional services to Green.
The latest announcement made in February was Frontier Airlines’ addition of nonstop flights to Austin, Texas and Atlanta. Prior to that, state officials gathered at the airport as RIAC announced Air Canada would provide seasonal, daily, nonstop flights to Canada’s largest airport, Toronto Pearson International, beginning in May.
As of June this year, total passenger traffic for 2018 was 2.1 million, a year-to-date increase of 19.18 percent from last year. If the trend continues, Green appears to be well on the way to surpassing the 3.9 million passengers recorded for 2017 that was about 300,000 more passengers than recorded in 2016.
Ahmad has made passenger growth a priority, bringing in low fare airlines and offering new destinations from Green both in this country and in Europe, especially Ireland. The emphasis now, he said in an interview Tuesday, is to increase load factors for airlines operating from Green. In other words, selling more tickets for existing flights.
With 7.5 million people living within a 90-mile radius of Green, Ahmad sees that as marketing Green’s convenience over Boston Logan’s hassle.
“It’s easy to get to and it’s easy to get through,” he said of Green.
Still there can be advantages to Boston, including the availability and frequency of flights. Cost of fares is another consideration. If Green has the flight and maybe the fare is a few dollars more, it can still be the preferred alternative. The cost of parking is less, but the important thing is the easy access and what it takes to get from the car to the seat on the plane. To illustrate, he pulls out his phone to share a photo of the Ted Williams Tunnel with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The net goal with the growth in passenger traffic is the impact it has on the Rhode Island economy. Studies show that for every air passenger arriving at Green, the state experiences a more than $900 boost in spending relating from direct expenditures such as hotels, transportation, food and goods to more jobs to provide those services. Ahmad puts the overall economic impact of the airport at between $2.2 billion and $2.6 billion.
The volume of passenger traffic also plays a role in the cost per passenger, a factor used by airlines to compare the costs of operating at an airport. With most passengers, the per-passenger cost goes down, making Green increasingly attractive to the airlines.
Topping that off, Ahmad adds, “Unlike Boston, we have no fuel tax.”
Southwest remains the dominate carrier at Green with a total of 827,622 passengers as of June, which is actually down by almost 3 percent from last year. American Airlines, formerly US Air with 262,169 passengers, an increase of 8.4 percent is second with newcomer Frontier, now at Green for less than a year, in third place with 217,062 passengers. Norwegian, Green’s largest international carrier with flights to Ireland and Scotland registered a total of 93,043 passengers for the first six months of the year.
As for the 6 million passenger target – that would surpass the record 5.7 million passengers that used Green in 2005 before Southwest started operations at Logan; before the Great Recession and when there were many more airlines than those that dominate now. Restoring Green traffic to the levels of its heyday has been an objective of airport directors since Green and the industry took a nosedive starting in 2007.
Ahmad has his sights clearly fixed for Green.
“We’re not trying to be Boston,” he said. “A healthy medium hub [airport] with the opportunity to do business around the world.”
And what does he see that meaning to the traveler?
“The shortest amount of time to get you there at a good price,” he said.