By Nicole C. Wong, Globe Staff
NEW BEDFORD – Mayor Scott W. Lang is trying something that might not fly: He’s lobbying small, regional airlines to launch service from here to Boston’s Logan International or Warwick’s T.F. Green International airports.
To some, it might seem absurd to fly for 20 to 25 minutes between New Bedford Regional Airport and Boston instead of driving the 60 miles, and even more so for the 40-mile trek to Warwick, R.I.
But commercial air service from New Bedford to one of the two cities would mean South Coast residents could catch connecting flights in Boston or Warwick and avoid traffic, expensive airport parking, and long lines at security checkpoints. Not to mention, it could turn New Bedford’s tiny airport into a better economic engine for an old whaling town trying to attract more biotechnology manufacturing, alternative energy, and marine science and technology companies.
“It adds a tremendous amount of convenience,” said Lang, who in his State of the City address proclaimed 2008 would be the “year of the airport.” The airport already is being used more: Corporate jet operations are up 66 percent in the past year and Bridgewater State College is opening a flight academy there this fall.
“There’s a real niche for a place like New Bedford, to go through a smaller airport to a hub.”
But starting new service may not be on the radar for an industry crushed by record-high fuel prices and huge losses.
“Carriers, if anything, are trying to determine which airports and routes to eliminate, rather than add,” said Darin Lee, aviation economist for consulting firm LECG. “It would be difficult to make it commercially viable with today’s fuel costs.”
Still, there’s some demand for the service. Agostinho Amado commuted between his Taunton home and Boston office – which could take two hours one way during rush hour – before opening an immigration services business in New Bedford in 2007.
“I wouldn’t mind paying $150 to $200 round trip” to fly between New Bedford and Boston, said Amado, 57. “Traffic makes you upset.”
New Bedford airport manager Ed DeWitt is trying to convince airlines that there are more travelers like Amado. Since January, he’s been talking to Delta Connection, American Eagle, Continental Connection, New England Airlines, Colgan Air, and Cape Air about the shuttle service – or any new service – to no avail.
“New England Airlines, which has service to Block Island, specifically said they have no interest in testing the waters for a New Bedford-Block Island service at this time, but left the door open if New Bedford can show it makes business sense,” said DeWitt.
Hyannis-based Cape Air would be the most logical partner. It’s the sole carrier serving New Bedford – with 20-minute flights to Martha’s Vineyard for $79 to $93 round trip and 25-minute flights to Nantucket for $112 to $172 round trip.
Cape Air also already operates out of Logan and T.F. Green and has a code-sharing agreement with Continental Airlines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., allowing the airlines to put their flight numbers and sell connecting seats on each other’s flights. And it has interline agreements with the other carriers, which means passengers can buy one ticket for connecting flights and check their bags through to their final destinations.
Cape Air has discussed this proposal with the New Bedford mayor, who would like at least three round trip flights a day. But chief executive Dan Wolf said the airline still doesn’t “really have a very good indication of what the demand is between New Bedford and Boston.”
To make the route financially feasible, Cape Air said it would need to carry 27 passengers a day, or 10,000 a year. To be profitable, Cape Air said it would need to use nine-seat aircraft and charge passengers $160 to $200 round trip to fly between New Bedford and Boston, since such flights sell only five seats on average.
“The real question is, once we put a price on the table, do we really believe 10,000 passengers a year will buy it?” Wolf said. “During most times of the day, it’s a fairly easy drive.”
In the early 1980s, about 100,000 passengers a year used New Bedford’s airport, DeWitt said. But now, usage is about 30,000 travelers a year.
In hopes they’ll persuade an airline to begin service, New Bedford officials have had informal discussions with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, and the Transportation Security Administration. If a carrier were interested, shuttle service could start in nine months, but it’s unclear how much it would cost to modernize this two-room airport with 1950s architecture and a pre-Sept. 11 security system, DeWitt said.
To lure more commercial air service, the airport would need to fully subsidize the carrier’s start-up operations, or a big company that can guarantee airline ticket sales would need to move to the area, which already is the headquarters of clothing maker Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Co., sporting goods maker Acushnet Co., and wiring and cable maker AFC Cable Systems Inc., said Henry H. Harteveldt, principal airline analyst at Forrester Research Inc.. Even then, it’s uncertain air service to a nearby hub would succeed.
“Even routes from Boston to Philadelphia come under challenge,” Harteveldt said. “It’s a six- to seven-hour drive versus an hour flight. But depending on where you live or are visiting in either area, if you get a delay of a couple hours, the time savings you get flying is mitigated.”
Nicole C. Wong can be reached at email@example.com.
August 8, 2008
By Nicole C. Wong, Globe Staff