Boston takes title for No. 1 destination for RIC travellers

Boston is now the top travel destination for travelers from Richmond International Airport, overtaking Atlanta in the top spot after years of rapid growth.

Airlines took nearly three times as many passengers to Boston in 2014 as they did a decade ago, when the city was only Richmond’s sixth most-popular destination. And it surged 24 percent in the past year.

The driving force behind Boston’s growth in the market — and New York’s decline — is tied to decisions made by the low-cost carrier JetBlue.

JetBlue has expanded its Boston service from three daily flights to five. Delta has also added a new flight to Boston, bringing its daily offerings to three.

“I think it’s the nature of competition. You’ve got a good low-cost carrier there that’s driving some price competition, which naturally is going to stimulate some demand,” said consultant and industry veteran Kevin P. Healy, a senior vice president with the consulting firm Campbell-Hill Aviation Group LLC in Arlington County. “What you’re seeing in Boston more so than Atlanta is a higher percentage of originating traffic from Boston. It’s people from Boston coming to Richmond.”

The average one-way fare to Boston is $114, cheapest of any of the airport’s top 10 cities and less than half the average price of a flight to New York. And while Atlanta’s numbers have remained steady, they’ve been outpaced by the huge growth in Boston travelers.

“In terms of Boston service, Richmond has more of it and at a more competitive price than anybody else within a couple of hours’ drive,” Richmond airport spokesman Troy Bell said. “It attracts passengers not only from our core service area but most likely a couple of hours away.”

Steve and Kimberly Kimball and their two children were heading to Boston on a nearly full JetBlue flight Friday morning. They planned to drive to Maine for a wedding before returning to Boston for a short vacation that would include a Red Sox game and a trip to the New England Patriots Hall of Fame. If prices stay low, Steve Kimball said, he hopes they can all go back later this summer.

“It was very easy to make the decision to fly up there instead of drive,” he said.

Also on the flight was Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager, who was on his way to a conference annual meeting in Rhode Island. Yeager has been flying to Boston several times a year for the past decade, and he’s noticed the change. Planes are more likely to be full both to Boston and back, he said, and often include college students or their parents.

“It’s very reasonable, convenient, nonstop and it’s an hour,” Yeager said. “New York used to be a destination, but those fares have gotten bizarre.”

New York has seen its passenger load cut in half in the five years since JetBlue pulled out of the market, with US Airways following suit in 2012.

The average ticket to one of the New York-area airports costs $274, and the city has gone from being Richmond’s top destination in 2009 to its fourth last year, behind Boston, Atlanta and Orlando. New York lost more passengers from 2009 to 2014 — 193,000 — than the three cities ahead of it gained.

George E. Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond, said another airline advantage for Boston as a destination is that it’s farther away than other Northeastern cities.

“Nothing has happened to the New York economy … it’s just that the market has become so disheveled and to the occasional traveler it’s not price competitive,” Hoffer said. “Boston is a 12-hour train ride from Richmond, whereas it’s only a six-hour train ride to New York. Air is the only game in town, unlike everything else in the Northeast corridor.”

Healy said JetBlue’s success with Boston probably will not make a case for its return to the New York market since the airline pulled its flights there because they weren’t profitable. The more likely scenario is expansion to other parts of the country, he said.

Hoffer said the next major step for RIC, which has reported growth in each of the past 14 months, will be a nonstop flight farther west.

“In my opinion, it is the biggest lost opportunity for any carrier serving Richmond over the past 20 years,” Hoffer said. “Every time there’s a merger you say, gee, there’s a breakthrough possible, but nobody has taken advantage of it.”

Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco round out the top 10 destinations from Richmond last year, but none can be reached without a connecting flight.

Hoffer said Southwest, which has large operations in Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix, or United, with a hub in Denver, hold the greatest promise. And Delta has a hub in Salt Lake City. But it’s not a simple proposition.

The Richmond airport received a $750,000 federal grant in 2013 to help entice one of its airlines to offer a nonstop flight to the West. But the recession hit the airline industry hard, and cities all over the country are competing for limited flight capacity.

“They don’t have excess aircraft lying around, and they’re very conservative about expansion,” Bell, the airport spokesman, said about the industry. “This is a system that today is smaller than it was five, six, seven years ago.”

Healy, the aviation analyst, said airlines have begun to cautiously consider growth. But attracting new flights is more of a marathon than a sprint, he said.

“For every airplane, you have dozens of cities and markets competing for that time,” Healy said. “What Richmond is good at is staying focused on what’s strategically important, and Boston’s a good example. They got into a place where Richmond would be very successful for JetBlue.”

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