New Airline Inaugurates Service to Island; PanAm Affiliate Expands Mainland Links

By JOSHUA SABATINI

A third commercial airline has launched service to Martha's Vineyard Airport, joining Cape Air and the returning US Airways Express in serving Islanders while providing residents and visitors with additional airports to fly directly to and from.

Boston-Maine Airways, an affiliate of Pan American Airways based in Portsmouth, N.H., last Friday saw its inaugural flight from headquarters land at the Vineyard airport around noon. Airline officials proceeded to the terminal for a ceremony marking the start of the carrier's summer Island service.

"We are very excited about connecting Portsmouth with Martha's Vineyard," said Boston-Maine president Dave Fink. "Offering a quick flight out to the Island will be a nice alternative to hours in traffic and making reservations for a ferry."

The Pan Am affiliate aims to provide nonstop connections to White Plains, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md., in addition to Portsmouth. The airline's current schedule sends a plane from New Hampshire to the Vineyard each morning, and then on to Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport and back. The same plane then flies to Westchester County Airport in White Plains before returning first to the Island and then to Portsmouth.

Boston-Maine will initially provide service Friday through Monday, but will quickly expand to seven-day service beginning May 20. The airline may expand its destinations even before the 2002 season is over, said Mr. Fink: It is already evaluating the possibility of a Vineyard-Newark route.

Airport manager Bill Weibrecht noted that Newark was previously served by Continental Airlines, which will not return to provide service this year. "We want to make sure we address the Newark market," he said.

Boston-Maine Airways operates a fleet of 19-passenger British Aerospace Jetstream 31 twin turboprop aircraft, which feature pressurized air-conditioned cabins, cruise at 220 knots and have a two-pilot crew.

"We have been looking at the Island passenger service for well over a year," said Mr. Fink. "The effectiveness of the management team at the Martha's Vineyard airport itself - you can't say no to these guys.

"We saw the Island service as an opportunity and decided to take advantage of it," he added. "We are just delighted to be here - not only is it a business opportunity, it is so enjoyable.

"Now I have an excuse to fly over here," Mr. Fink said.

The 50-minute flight from the Vineyard to Portsmouth has a one-way fare of $127, as does the two-hour flight to Baltimore. The one-hour flight to Westchester County Airport in White Plains is $137.

"The goal is to be [on-Island] permanently all year-round, serving all three destinations," said Dan Fortman, vice president of marketing for Boston-Maine.

Boston-Maine has expanded its service elsewhere as well; its newest destinations include three cities in Florida; Freeport, Grand Bahamas and San Juan, P.R. Mr. Fortman said travelers from the Vineyard would most likely connect to southern routes in Baltimore.

"We are here to take people from metro convenient airports without having to change in Boston," said Mr. Fink.

Boston-Maine is not the first airline to fly from the Vineyard to White Plains, but it is the first in recent memory to offer a set schedule. In the past, Mr. Weibrecht said, "The destination has been popular, but the service has been spotty."

White Plains's airport will prove attractive to many travelers, he said, because it is smaller than major airports, has less of a security wait and is more convenient.

The link to BWI is useful, too, said Mr. Weibrecht, because the airport there offers connections to international flights as well as low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines.

"Boston-Maine is anticipating service year round, but it relies on the market," said Mr. Weibrecht. "The airline is not in direct competition with Cape Air. It is a good complementary service.

Since US Airways Express ended year-round service shortly after Sept. 11, Cape Air was the only airline at the Vineyard airport until recently.

After Sept. 11, Mr. Weibrecht said, the airport hit a lull, but because business had been so strong it was able to absorb the losses.

He said business at the airport is recovering. "Month over month for this time of year, we are right on par overall with last year. Last year was a record year - three to four per cent growth in fuel, and four to five per cent growth in traffic," said Mr. Weibrecht. "We have signs of a slight decrease in airline boardings, which I think is solely due to removal of the New York service," he added.

But with the new service from Boston-Maine adding to the mix of airlines, Mr. Weibrecht is hopeful the airport will fully recover.

"Right now it is very unique to have growth in service for any airport in post 9-11 days. We are extremely excited to have Boston-Maine Airways, who are committed to the market," said Mr. Weibrecht.