A flurry of new nonstop flights to Portland announced over the winter is part of an air travel reorganization that has airlines offering more routes for tourists to replace the business and international travel markets demolished by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Leisure traffic is coming back, and coming back a lot faster than business traffic is,” said Zach Sundquist, assistant airport director at the Portland International Jetport. “When you are a premium destination like Maine, that has been a positive for us. You are watching airlines spend their assets where they think they can get passengers in seats.”
Since the beginning of the year, at least four airlines have added flights or expanded service to and from Portland. Those changes included a six-city expansion by United Airlines announced last week that will add Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Milwaukee and Pittsburgh to a roster of summer routes to the jetport. It also added daily nonstop flights to Denver.
Those flights were a “transformational moment” for the airport and the Portland market for Midwest cities that typically would connect to Portland only through a large hub airport, Airport Director Paul Bradbury said in a statement announcing the new flights.
United’s Portland flights were part of a 26-route summer expansion from the Midwest to vacation destinations such as Hilton Head, Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; as well as Pensacola, Florida.
Ankit Gupta, vice president of United’s domestic network planning, said the past few weeks have seen the strongest flight bookings since the beginning of the pandemic.
“As we rebuild our schedule to meet that demand, adding in-season, point-to-point flying is just one of the ways we are finding opportunities to add new and exciting service,” Gupta said via email in response to questions about whether the airline added flights to leisure destinations to compensate for lost business travel.
The United expansion followed other new route additions for Portland, including daily flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Delta Air Lines, a year-round Miami service from American Airlines, and a monthlong schedule to and from Tampa via Frontier Airlines.
Route changes come amid the continued downturn in American passenger aviation. Seven companies represented by trade group Airlines for America carried 46 percent fewer passengers and had 34 fewer flights as of late March than before the pandemic, the association said.
States that have major business travel destinations, such as New York, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and California, had air service reductions of at least 45 percent in March from before the pandemic, according to Airlines for America. Air travel is still discretionary, it said, and with business travel down, states that offer outdoor leisure activities are witnessing fewer declines in flights.
Portland’s jetport has steadily gained new routes in recent years, a testament to Maine’s growing prominence as a top tourism destination, airport officials have said.
The state’s reputation for outdoor activities and wild, open spaces – benefits some pandemic travelers prize highly – could boost Maine tourism this year, said Sundquist, the jetport’s assistant director.
The vast majority of tourists drive in personal vehicles to visit Maine, while only about 13 percent of overnight visitors flew into the state in 2019, according to research from the Maine Office of Tourism.
There is no guarantee the new routes from United and other airlines will be permanent, Sundquist said. The six-city United expansion offers flights only a few days a week, runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and will use a small, 50-seater rather than a larger passenger plane.
Traffic through the jetport is still far lower than before the pandemic. The total number of passengers through the airport in February was almost 68 percent lower than the same month last year.
“If we see a big snapback in business travel, I don’t really see those assets being available to do these flights in future years,” Sundquist said. “That being said, we are hopeful that if this is successful and profitable, the airlines might say, ‘Hey, we actually did well in that market, and let’s bring it back next year.’”