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"Peak Hour Pricing: Fee hikes at Logan worry state officials"


 
Friday, August 23, 2002

Fee hikes at Logan worry state officials
By MATT WICKENHEISER
The Portland (ME) Press Herald


To cut congestion at Boston's Logan International Airport, Massachusetts
Port Authority officials may consider charging "peak-hour" fees for planes
arriving during heavy usage times - a move that Maine officials say could
particularly hurt travelers from this and other rural states.

While plans for such a fee structure are in "extremely early" stages, Jeff
Schultes, manager at the Portland International Jetport, said extra costs
incurred by airlines would likely get passed on to passengers. Schultes said
Portland transportation officials want their counterparts at Logan to know
that Maine officials oppose the plan, and they have enlisted the support of
Maine's congressional delegation in the fight.

As part of Logan's push to expand its runways, MassPort officials say they
will submit a "demand-management plan" to the Federal Aviation
Administration if delays caused by overscheduling of flights exceed three
hours a day, according to Barbara Platt, MassPort spokeswoman. However,
Platt said, delays are currently nowhere near that point. During peak times
Wednesday, for example, there were an average of 85 "operations" per hour,
and Logan can handle 120.

If and when a plan is submitted, she said, it would likely consider peak
fees as one answer to congestion. Platt said MassPort could submit its plan
before the need arises and would first consult interested parties, such as
the airlines and regional airport officials. MassPort has no time frame in
mind.

In Portland, Schultes said MassPort's theory behind applying the fees is
simple: "If you charge higher prices, carriers will reduce the number of
flights, and will add bigger flights."

That would hurt Maine, he said, because most planes out of this state are
small, and many head to Logan, where passengers board connecting flights.
Maine doesn't have enough demand to warrant larger jets flying out of this
state.

Though there's no information yet on possible MassPort fees, Schultes
offered a hypothetical scenario: If a fee of $1,000 is imposed on a plane
flying into Logan during a peak hour, that would mean $5 extra for each
traveler on a 200-passenger plane. It would mean $20 extra per person on a
50-passenger plane.

That's why the policy would hurt travelers from more rural states.

Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, said he opposed any hikes that would hurt travelers
from Maine, and noted that among his colleagues on Capitol Hill, sides in
any fight over the fees "will be more geographic than partisan."
Congressional members from urban areas would hope to keep the air over their
districts from becoming congested; their rural counterparts would work to
maintain airline service for their areas.

Dave Lackey, spokesman for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, agreed. Lackey said
Snowe has fought the issue several times in the past, when it was raised for
both Logan and LaGuardia airports. Snowe serves on the Commerce Committee's
aviation subcommittee along with subcommittee Chairman Sen. John D. (Jay)
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., another opponent of such geographically discriminatory
fees, Lackey said.

There are other options, said Lackey, such as working with schedules and
enhancing the use of regional jets. Though airlines have been deregulated
since 1978, they operate on a largely public infrastructure and there is a
public trust, he said.

If the peak fees come to pass, only certain airlines out of Portland would
be affected, said Schultes. American Eagle has five daily flights to Boston,
while Delta has five and U.S. Air three. Northwest, Continental and United
airlines don't fly into Boston for connections, he said.

One worst-case scenario, said Schultes, is that some airlines may stop
flying smaller connection jets to Logan altogether.

"Effectively, what could happen in the Northeast is all the airports could
lose their service," he said.

One thing planners in the regional corridors between Boston, New York and
Washington may need to look at is a more intermodal approach for traveling,
Schultes said. Instead of taking a flight from Boston to New York, a train
may be viewed as an alternative.

"I'm not trying to push people off aviation, but I think we've gotten to a
point in this country where we need aviation for long hauls," he said.

Portland City Councilor Jay Hibbard, a frequent business traveler, said the
last thing air travelers need is another fee tacked on to tickets. On a
recent $450 ticket he bought, almost $100 went to fees and taxes, he said.
MassPort may find additional fees over-effective at reducing congestion, he
suggested.

"After a while, what people figure out is it isn't so bad to desert the
airport entirely," Hibbard said. "I think they'll lose more than the ones
they want to lose."

As a policy-maker, Hibbard said, he was concerned about the possibility of
making business in Maine even more expensive. The airport is an economic
development tool, he said, and many businesses looking to locate in the
state first ask whether there's accessible air service. If the fees go in
effect, the next thing they may be saying is " 'You might have air service,
but boy, it's really expensive,' " he said.

Hibbard said he personally doubts that an additional fee would affect
business travelers much, as they can pass on the extra costs.

But that may not be the case, according to Steve Hewins, president of
Hewins/Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Portland. "Business people," he said, "are
behaving like vacation travelers." Business travelers are very
cost-conscious these days, he said, shopping around for the lowest fares
because employers are balking at high travel expenses.

Several years ago, he said, fees and taxes were about 9.2 percent of a
ticket's cost. Today, that number is just under 30 percent, he said. Adding
more fees, particularly ones that unfairly hit small planes, is going
against the industry trend of using smaller, more efficient planes, he said.

Hewins said he also opposes such fees because they'd directly hit his
business. At a time when travelers are complaining more about tacked-on fees
than ever before, this could be a final straw, he said, keeping even more
people out of the skies.

Hibbard agreed. "People are always saying they're willing to pay more," he
said. "But at some point, you reach that resistance point."

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