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Connecticut's Airport Dreams Are Stuck in a Holding Pattern

By Gregory B. Hladky

August 28, 2012

Connecticut's biggest airports seem to be stuck in a strange and frustrating limbo. Lots of local and state folks see them as potentially high-flying engines of economic prosperity, but they never quite achieve lift-off.

Bradley International Airport needs to build a new terminal. Or maybe not, depending on whose numbers you believe.

Tweed-New Haven Airport, long stymied by local East Haven Not-In-My-Back-Yard opposition, has finally completed its own modest expansion plans. Or maybe not, depending on how you define "expansion" and whether a sexy scheme to have the state take over Tweed's operations ever reaches climax.

Meanwhile, Bridgeport's Sikorsky Memorial remains locked in it's own political gridlock hell. The airport is owned by Bridgeport but located in Stratford. Even the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has apparently been unable to cut through the web of hostility and confusion clogging up basic safety improvements at Sikorsky.

Part of the difficulty is that Connecticut remains geographically challenged, airport-wise, between New York and Boston. Much of the western and southwestern areas of this state likes to lift off out of JFK or La Guardia or Westchester. North-central and eastern CT fliers often prefer to make the quick trip to Boston's Logan Airport.

So far, Connecticut air travel gurus haven't figured out the right formula to lure enough of those folks to do their flying out of their home state terminals. And without guaranteed fannies to fill their seats, major airlines are reluctant to commit to things like international flights out of Bradley or regular service from Tweed to Washington, D.C.

"We have demand for air travel here," says Jeffrey P. Cohen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Hartford, "but for some reason we haven't been able to make it work yet."

Airport economics is one of Cohen's specialties, and he admits it's a very uncertain science.

"The air transportation network is such a complicated system that it's really hard to predict what's going to happen," Cohen warns.

Which makes the peculiar prediction contradiction concerning Bradley's future a bit more understandable.

A study issued in July by state-hired consultants forecast dramatic passenger growth at Bradley and the need for a new terminal and another new parking garage with 2,600 spaces – all of which might cost a cool $600 million.

Except that those projections (made in 2010) were apparently out of date by the time the report came out. The Federal Aviation Administration has way different figures from 2011, suggesting Bradley might not have as many passengers in 2028 as it did back in 2005.

Our brand new Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley and five much smaller airports around the state, is now redoing that consultant's study. Whatever the revised research shows, Hartford-region boosters will probably remain convinced that a new terminal at Bradley would be worth the money.

Meanwhile, New Haven's airport is theoretically poised for launch. Theoretically.

A long-running dispute with East Haven was resolved a few years ago, giving Tweed the room it needed to expand its end-of-runway safety zones. In return, East Haven got assurances that annual passenger traffic out of the airport would be limited to no more than 200,000 a year – five times the current level.

"It's been very successful," Tim Larson says of the first phase of the expansion plan. Larson is executive director of the Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority when he's not lawmaking in Hartford as a state rep from East Hartford.

Tweed had about 40,000 people boarding aircraft last year, and Larson says the airport "could accommodate another 100,000 riders… without expanding our footprint."

The target, he says, is all those travelers heading to New York airports. "The New Haven market leaks all its passengers to New York," according to Larson. Except for about 32,000 who drive up to Bradley each year for flights.

"We have no [more] expansion plans," he insists.

Except Tweed officials want more than the existing daily flights to Philadelphia, pushing hard to get some airline to offer planes to Washington, D.C. And they want the state, which already provides Tweed with $1.5 million a year in subsidies (to New Haven's $350,000 a year), to stage a complete takeover of operations.

And there have also been "some discussions" about extending Tweed's runways by paving some portions of the existing safety areas, Larson says.

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano believes Tweed needs some more work but says he's confident the airport can be used "to spur economic growth." As for a state takeover, DeStefano shrugs it off. "I don't think it's an essential component," he says.

Sikorsky's situation seems to be in virtual stall mode. Back in June, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and Stratford Mayor John Harkins were "invited" to visit U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Washington, D.C.

The purpose of this friendly little jaunt was to resolve the dispute that's blocked Sikorsky from expanding its safety zones, which would require relocating one of Stratford's roads. There's been a deafening silence since that meeting.

This nasty spat dates back to the 1970s. It's a mess that is screwed up in local politics, with connections to the tangle over developing the neighboring, defunct Stratford Army Engine Plant is owned by the U.S. Army; and has even involved dueling U.S. Representatives. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro has taken the side of Stratford, which is in her district; while Congressman Jim Himes, who represents Bridgeport, has been urging that city's case.

There's no sign any of this is going to get settled soon. But that hasn't quashed local supporters' dreams of having Sikorsky cash in on all those wealthy travelers who live in posh suburbs in the region.

Committing bomb loads of state taxpayer money to building up Bradley or Tweed or even Sikorsky might turn out to have some serious economic paybacks. Newark Liberty International Airport, for instance, has become a major regional success story.

The other side of the airport coin is what happened in St. Louis. That city's airport underwent a hugely expensive expansion a few years ago. Then American Airlines pulled out, says Cohen, because it got a sweeter offer elsewhere. That left St. Louis with an almost empty airport.

"It's definitely a gamble," Cohen says of possible airport expansions in Connecticut. "We don't know if we're going to be another St. Louis or another Newark."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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