Friday, December 23, 2016

Growing pains at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease

PORTSMOUTH - When Pease Development Authority Executive Director David Mullen considers Portsmouth International Airport at Pease and its potential for more commercial air traffic, he sees a classic chicken-or-egg dilemma.

What comes first: A major airline, such as the pending decision by Norwegian Air Shuttle to come to Pease, to jumpstart needed facility improvements at the airport? Or improvements now to make Pease more attractive in the future to airline companies such as Norwegian?

"It's a limiting factor," Mullen said. "Do you wait and build it or build it now and hope they come?"

Mullen believes the time has come to consider improvements to the terminal that could cost $10 million at a minimum.

"We're looking at doing something now," he said.

Mullen and others see advantages and disadvantages for the Pease airport when it comes to attracting and keeping commercial air carriers.

Among the advantages: No airport fees and free parking, access to public transportation and major highways, and the attractiveness of the region itself as a gateway to New England.

Among the disadvantages: Existing competition from airports in nearby Manchester, Boston and Portland, old infrastructure, and the fact Pease came into the market as a commercial airport relatively late in the game.

The long-term vision for Pease is, as aviation consultant Dan Fortnam put it, "as a spoke and not a hub." Its niche will be destination service to places where people want to vacation and visit, not as a means to an end to get to someplace else.

Fortnam is a consultant with Air Service Development out of Marston Mills, Massachusetts, and has been working with Pease since 2011 to attract more commercial air traffic.

The airport has had an ever-revolving turnstile of commercial carriers come and go over the years since it earned its commercial certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in 1992, soon after Pease closed as a base for the U.S. Air Force. The airport has a dual purpose - as a commercial airport and as home base for the 157th Air Wing of the N.H. Air National Guard. The PDA assumed oversight of Pease after the base closed.

According to a list compiled by Andrew Pomeroy, acting manager at the airport - first there was Business Express Delta Connection, followed by a United Express carrier. Both had ceased operations by the time Pan Am - then owned by Guilford Transportation of New Hampshire - started flying in 1999. Allegiant Air started a charter service around 2005 and departed when Sky Bus started service to and from Columbus, Ohio, in 2007, ending its service in 2008. Following Sky Bus there was no scheduled service until Allegiant Air returned in 2013 with winter season flights to Florida, a service that has grown to now include four stops - Sanford, Fort Lauderdale, Punta Gorda and Clearwater/St. Petersburg (its most recent addition).

Timing can be everything, and by the time Pease had its commercial approval, there were already three established commercial airports within an hour's drive - Logan International, Portland International Jetport and Manchester-Boston Regional. "We're a little behind that curve," Pomeroy said.

Pease isn't going to get the Jet Blue or Southwest type of low-cost carriers because they're well established in the region already. "Low-cost carriers, in order to make their model work, need frequency," Pomeroy said.

The other factor that isn't working in Pease's favor is the infrastructure. Mullen, Pomeroy and others acknowledge the terminal has to grow and parking has to grow to accommodate any growth in commercial air flights.

The terminal currently handles the domestic traffic generated by Allegiant's flights to and from Florida and the unscheduled international travel of private airlines contracted by the military to fly troops to and from deployment overseas. The combined traffic requires not only security screening by a company contracted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but customs for the overseas travelers as well.

And, right now, there are 961 parking spaces within an easy walk of the terminal. Another 900 spaces are available at a spillover lot on Arboretum Drive.

Any expansion of the terminal would include expansion of parking on land adjacent to the airport that could give the facility a total of 3,200 spaces. "That would be enough to satisfy us for a while," Mullen said.

As for the terminal itself, besides some cosmetic improvements to bathrooms, the roof, and space to better handle the overseas troop travelers, there hasn't been much work to expand the building itself. There is a need for more jetways for passengers to enter and exit a plane without having to step outside, for example. The building needs a larger area for ticketing and for TSA inspections. That, Mullen said, should happen, regardless of whether Norwegian Air comes to Portsmouth or not.

Even the relatively modest frequency of the Allegiant and military flights is causing us to feel some growing pains," he said.

"It's demonstrating a need already," added Pomeroy.

Of benefit to Pease, as in selling a house, is location, location, location.

"We see Portsmouth as a great connection to New England for the overseas traveler," Mullen said. He noted that car rentals are available at the airport, and bus service to Boston is available by way of hourly runs by the C&J Bus Service located 2.5 miles away on Grafton Road. Passenger rail service - the Downeaster - south into Boston and north into Maine is nine miles away at the depot in Durham.

"That's a sales tool," said Fortnam, adding, "Portsmouth is a gateway to New England that can't be beat. Portsmouth is a very strong destination."

The fact it is not a very busy airfield right now is also an advantage, according to Fortnam. "The airlines can look at this facility and know they can operate on time," he said.

Mark Gardner, deputy general counsel for the PDA, told the story of flying out of Pease on an Allegiant flight. The pilot got on the intercom during taxiing and said, "We're No. 1 in line for takeoff ...; we're always No. 1 for takeoff."

And Mullen sees Logan as reaching its capacity for growth. "Places like Boston Logan are limited for expansion, so maybe our time is coming," he said.

Gardner said the effort to get Norwegian Air here is part of an overall strategy of courting it and other airlines as well. "Airlines are well aware of our existence and have been sniffing around," he said.

Pease officials attend industry events that Mullen likens to speed dating - you get a few minutes with a prospective suitor then move on to the next.

"You let them know where you are and what you can do," Fortnam said.

Mullen added: "You give them the pitch, and if there's interest you follow up from there."

In early December, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted approval for Norwegian Air's Ireland-based subsidiary to fly into the U.S.

It is looking to establish two U.S. bases of operation. Stewart International Airport in Newburg, New York, is expected to be one; Pease hopes to be the other. Flights would include several in Ireland and England, and one in Norway and Scotland with introductory one-way fares as low as $69.

To Fortnam, the airport's market niche as a spoke fits right into the needs of Norwegian.

"Our geography is our greatest strength and sometimes our biggest disadvantage," he said, but added for an overseas carrier, the location is ideal.

"Portsmouth fits right into their comfort zone," he said.

Having met with Norwegian Air officials Nov. 23, Mullen said it could take up to two months for the airline to decide if Pease will be its second base of operation.


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