MANCHESTER — J. Brian O'Neill, deputy director of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, confesses he misses the days when people came up to him in the grocery store and thanked him because they didn't have to fly out of Logan International Airport in Boston.
Now, he said, those same people are confronting him: "Why are you forcing me to go to Logan?"
O'Neill, appearing Friday at a Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce infrastructure summit, delved into the air transportation changes that have cut the airport's passenger count from a peak of 4.3 million seven years ago to about 2.7 million last year.
Manchester's fortunes soared after landing Southwest Airlines in the late 1990s, he said, then stumbled when Logan lured Southwest competitor JetBlue to the flight line in 2004. Other low-fare airlines followed JetBlue to Boston.
"Logan started to become a focus city," O'Neill said, reluctantly tipping his cap to the competition over the border. "You've got to give Logan a lot of credit."
Manchester benefitted when Southwest was the only game in town. That propelled passenger traffic, with people willing to drive long distances, even from Canada. But more than 20 percent of the traffic came from Massachusetts, he said.
"No one wanted to go into Logan," O'Neill recalled.
As Logan prospered following the arrival of JetBlue, Manchester saw flights eliminated and smaller planes substituted for larger ones.
Then came the call Manchester didn't need from Southwest. The airline had concluded it needed a Boston presence.
"That was the worst day in my life, when Southwest called and said we are going to Logan," O'Neill said.
Southwest stayed in Manchester. But it grew to 28 daily flights at Logan.
In the past six to nine months, however, Southwest has scaled back at Logan to 17 flights.
Now Southwest has bought up rival Air Tran, and O'Neill said it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the market.
Manchester, meanwhile, is concentrating on its game.
"We're working with all our airlines, and airlines that are not here, trying to recapture seats," O'Neill said. "The word we're using at the airport is stability."
While the airport tries to regain passenger traffic, it remains a key driver of the state's economy.
O'Neill estimates it contributes about $1 billion to the economy and is responsible for creating about 3,500 jobs in Rockingham, Hillsborough and Merrimack counties.
"We're still a major economic engine," O'Neill said.
FedEx and UPS moved 175 million pounds of cargo through the airport last year. Because of the newly opened airport access road, both companies are looking at how they can use that to their advantage for distribution through the region, he said.
"They love the new airport access road," O'Neill said, as do employees of airline companies who commute there.
The airport also is eager to find ways to improve the experience of passengers who rely on ground transportation.
O'Neill concedes there is a need for improvement in ground transit and expressed interest in working with bus companies and on rail service.
"We want to be at the table," O'Neill said.
Gov. John Lynch told the Chamber that despite the passenger decline, the airport continues to be important for the state.
The opening of the airport access road, combined with future development of Pettingill Road in Londonderry, could have economic benefits for the whole state, he said.
"That could potentially mean thousands of jobs here in New Hampshire," the governor said. "It's economic development waiting to happen."
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