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August 13, 2012

Bradley airfares highest in region … and rising

HBJ File Photo Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks saw fares rise this year while passenger traffic decreased.

Airfares at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks have risen at nearly double the national rate for the country's top airports, making Greater Hartford the most expensive area for airline tickets in the region.

The average roundtrip Bradley airfare rose 9.1 percent to $398.03 in the first quarter from the first quarter 2011, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics in late July. The average roundtrip U.S. airfare rose 4.8 percent to $372.75 in the first quarter.

“Obviously, increased costs have an impact on travel,” said Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance. “As ticket prices go up, businesses … are going to look harder at that just like the consumer will.”

The large increase gives Bradley the most expensive airline ticket among its rival airports in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern New York. Bradley is second most expensive in New England after Burlington, Vt., and the 32nd most expensive in the nation among the top 100 airports.

When Southwest Airlines came into Bradley, that put downward pressure on airfares because Southwest is a low-cost carrier that increased competition for other airlines, Griebel said. When Northwest Airlines merged with Delta Air Lines, that put upward pressure on airfares because of the decreased competition at Bradley.

“There's no doubt that air fare is one of the most dominant factors across the board in looking where and when to fly,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which operates Bradley.

Since the CAA took over control of Bradley from the Connecticut Department of Transportation in 2011, the authority has made it a priority to increase airline competition at the airport to make fares more competitive.

“When you look at the fare levels at Bradley, that is certainly something we want to focus on, but fare levels are not something the airport can directly control,” said Dillon, who started his job in July. “As the Connecticut Airport Authority takes shape, we want to be very proactive in addressing the rate structure.”

The individual airlines control their fares and the cost of those is dictated by several factors, such as the percentage of business travelers, how full each plane is, the length of the routes, fuel prices, and competition for passengers on those routes, Dillon said.

Bradley has a 50/50 split between business and leisure travelers, a higher percentage of business travelers than surrounding airports, Dillon said. Business fliers are more likely to pay more for airfares because they are less flexible in their flight dates.

Higher load factor means airlines can charge more for fewer available seats, Dillon said. In the first quarter 2012, flights out of Bradley were 82 percent full, higher than Boston Logan International Airport and New York's LaGuardia Airport, and equal to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Only Westchester County White Plains Airport was higher at 86 percent.

Routes with shorter distances have lower fares, so airports with overall shorter routes than Bradley — such as LaGuardia — benefit from these lower cost flights, Dillon said.

While airfares are out of the hands of Bradley's direct administration, the CAA wants to keep down the costs it can control, such as parking, Dillon said.

The cost of parking at a Bradley lot costs $6-$8 per day, and the garage costs $24 daily. Lots at the Boston and New York airports cost $18 daily while the garages cost $27-$33 daily.

Lots at T.F. Green International Airport in Providence cost $11 per daily while the garages cost $15-$23. White Plains airport offers a garage at $27.45 daily, but that airport has a shortage of long-term spaces and encourages fliers to seek alternative transportation.

“We want to be providing competitive service at the airport,” Dillon said.

Passenger traffic at Bradley airport peaked in 2005 and lost more than 25 percent of its traffic in the subsequent four years. The airport's passenger traffic rebounded in 2010 and 2011, although traffic appears to be declining again this year.

In June — the most recent month for Bradley passenger counts — 467,278 passengers departed and arrived in Windsor Locks, down 3 percent from June 2011.

As flying becomes more expensive, businesses are looking for alternative methods such as video conferencing to interact in the global marketplace, said Mark Calzone, president of Stratford information-technology provider Ash Creek Enterprises, Inc.

“People are more diligent about the money they are spending,” Calzone said.

As travel costs increase, video conferencing technology improves, driving costs down, Calzone said. A new video conference system now costs about $20,000.

Especially if companies are flying their employees first class or business class, a video conference system can be paid off in a year or less, not to mention the ancillary costs of business travel such as meals, hotels and lost production.

“Year one, it pays for itself, and it is not something you are going to have to replace every year,” Calzone said. “It has become a lot more popular and accessible.”

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