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Don't Sell Bradley Airport Just Fix It

Fiscal Gimmick: State should keep airport and create an independent airport authority

Hartford Courant

May 09, 2010

Pawning the family jewels is usually a sign of abject desperation. We don't think Connecticut is quite there yet, so let's not sell Bradley International Airport. But let's run it more intelligently.

Republicans in the General Assembly floated the idea last week of selling state-owned Bradley as well as Brainard Field in Hartford off I-91, saying it could raise $800 million. This followed a proposal from Gov. M. Jodi Rell to transfer the airport to a quasi-public authority that would hire a private firm to operate it, a move she said would generate $25 million a year.

Democrats rightly questioned the validity of both numbers, and neither idea was part of the final budget package, nor should they have been. Though the governor's proposal was a step in the right direction, these ideas had a kind of last-minute Hail Mary quality that shouldn't be part of sound fiscal planning. In difficult economic times, there's always an impulse to find one-time revenue boosts by selling assets or borrowing against future revenues. This impulse should almost always be held in check more so than it was in legislative session that concluded Wednesday. Before we sell the furniture, let's get the household in order. State government has to be made smaller, more efficient and less expensive. It has to focus on developing the state's economy.

The importance of Bradley to that effort cannot be overstated. The airport is vital to commerce in Southern New England. By one estimate, it pumps $4 billion per year into the regional economy. We should be using Bradley to optimal effect. To do that, we need to stop running it like a state agency.

Bradley is one of few airports in the country run by a state Department of Transportation; most are run by independent, self-funded airport authorities or boards. The DOT does a fine job on the "air side" of the operation, getting planes in and out, clearing the runways, etc. But on what is known as the "ground side," which includes such things as marketing, promotion and business development, the airport administration must manage to a budget rather than a market, is hamstrung by state personnel and contracting rules, and is simply not entrepreneurial.

For example:

Delta Airlines went to the state last year with an offer to start a flight from Hartford to Paris if Bradley would indemnify the airline against losing money for two years. The flight seemed to make sense; France is Connecticut's second-largest trading partner and Paris is the second most popular European destination for passengers in Bradley's service area. Nonetheless, the DOT turned it down.

A few years ago, the Bradley board of directors, a mostly advisory body, identified a Colorado man as its top choice for airport manager. He didn't take the job because the state declined to pay a few thousand dollars in family moving expenses. That is the very definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish, something no entrepreneurial organization would ever do.

It took 15 months to hire a marketing director, Kiran Jain, several years ago. She left in December to take a position with a major airport in New Delhi and, according to a DOT spokesman, the position still hasn't been filled.

A bill aimed at giving the airport board of directors more autonomy was proposed but not passed in the legislature this year. It's not clear that the bill would have made the board independent of the DOT. It would have granted more contracting and personnel authority. But it also would have expanded the board from seven to nine members and given the governor, to whom the DOT also reports, the two new appointments.

To do this right, the legislature needs to keep the airport but create an independent airport authority to run Bradley (and Brainard, an under-appreciated asset). As President Bill Clinton might have said, mend it, don't vend it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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