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Aviation Blog

Dan Haar: Why Lamont's two-airport strategy for Sikorsky and Tweed could backfire – CT Insider

Governor Ned Lamont (right) speaks during a ceremony before the Avelo Airlines inaugural flight from Tweed New Haven Regional Airport to Orlando on November 3, 2021.
Views of Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, Conn., on Friday Jan. 22, 2021.
The competition between Tweed New Haven Airport and Sikorsky Memorial Airport for aviation supremacy on the Connecticut shoreline seemed over on May 6, when Tweed engineered a surprise announcement that a private operator would pour $100 million into the airfield and a start-up airline would launch flights in 2021.
Top state officials including Gov. Ned Lamont showed up to hail the development, all the sweeter since Tweed not only wasn’t asking for a dime of taxpayer money, it was swearing off nearly $2 million a year in subsidies.
But battles die hard. Exactly seven months later, even as Avelo Airlines has taken off at Tweed with flights to six Florida cities, even as the New Haven Board of Alders unanimously backed the expansion, the longshot Sikorsky dream lives on — perhaps leading to an unfortunate outcome.
The state continues to eye a two-airport strategy for commercial airline service on the shoreline. They can both thrive, Lamont told me a few days ago. Let’s see if Sikorsky, too, can attract private backing, added David Lehman, the state economic and community development commissioner.
Yes, it’s conceivable both airports could thrive, boosting shoreline travelers and businesses from Norwalk to Noank that don’t now have a robust airport to attract and move employees.
It also could backfire, as the the two-airport strategy comes with risks for the whole state.
Part of what we’re seeing is a good, old-fashioned power struggle.
The Connecticut Airport Authority, which owns and operates Bradley International Airport and four smaller airfields across the state, wants to take over Sikorsky, located in Stratford and owned and operated by the city of Bridgeport — and Bridgeport welcomes that.
The CAA, created by the state in 2011, is headed by Kevin Dillon, a longtime industry veteran who once ran LaGuardia Airport for the almighty Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and has earned plaudits at Bradley.
The Tweed authority, with board members from New Haven and nearby towns, won a federal lawsuit in 2019 overturning a state ban on expansion. Its executive director is Sean Scanlon, a rising young Democrat from Guilford and state Representative who co-chairs the legislature’s powerful finance committee, and who negotiated the expansion.
I’m all for competition. Everyone just needs to keep three possible headaches in mind as Tweed zooms ahead while Sikorsky remains a jet dream with no commercial passenger service.
The first worry is that Sikorsky, with no terminal, an undersized pair of runways and no place to expand, turns into a money pit for the quasi-public Connecticut Airport Authority, which has a $62 million plan for Sikorsky. That’s not exactly taxpayer money since it comes from various fees on aviation operations, and the Feds would pay some of it. Still, we the owners of the five existing CAA airports do have a claim on it.
Tweed is different. Avports, an airport operator owned by an affiliate of the investment bank Goldman Sachs, is willing to spend its own cash at Tweed, including building a new terminal on the East Haven side of the field that straddles New Haven and East Haven, in exchange for 43 years of harvesting airport profits.
The second possible headache: Ten years from now, Tweed and Sikorsky, 20 miles apart, both end up with new terminals and commercial routes, but neither has the critical mass to make a difference. Both live on as sleepy bus stations with wings.
That might satisfy neighbors of both airports, including the two most powerful state senators, but it wouldn’t do much for the state economy, which desperately needs a thriving coastline airport.
And the third headache: If Lamont, a business entrepreneur who speaks dreamily of public-private partnerships and of attracting private dollars wherever possible, agrees to let the CAA compete against Tweed using mostly CAA money — he could unwittingly make Connecticut less welcoming to private investment.
“Many states are seeing the benefits of attracting private investments, like ours, to help solve long-term problems and provide relief in areas like infrastructure,” Jorge Roberts, the Avports CEO, said in a written statement to me in response to the Sikorsky plan. “As such, it could send mixed signals should Connecticut choose to inject public dollars into a new effort when there is an active, successful project already underway.”
Roberts was clear: “Avports remains entirely committed to Tweed New Haven and the exciting, ongoing development now taking place there.”
Still, there should be an awfully good reason for public money to compete against private investment, as there is with health care access and medical insurance, for example.
Does Sikorsky warrant such a move? It’s at least worth examining, Lamont and Lehman say.
“I think that Sikorsky is part of that Fairfield County catch basin,” Lamont said — an area that relies on congested LaGuardia and Kennedy airports in New York and the nearby, but small, Westchester County Airport. “Tweed is going gangbusters,” he added, but he said, “they’re focused on a different market.”
Politically, it can’t hurt Lamont’s 2022 re-election bid if he favors two airports, not just one.
That Tweed is a separate market from Sikorsky is true for some towns, not true for others. Folks in the Gold Coast towns from Westport on down may not trek to Tweed.
And, said Dillon, executive director of the CAA, “Bradley is already serving the majority of the market area that Tweed claims.”
That, too, is a matter of debate.
Clearly, the state can help Sikorsky just by having the CAA take over, said former Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch — with both money and influence. “It’s totally underutilized,” he said. “We tried to get GE to move their corporate fleet there. We couldn’t get gravitas.”
Key to a smooth, affordable expansion at Sikorsky is whether it can attract significant flights with a main runway only 4,677 feet long. Everything I’ve heard, and certainly what they’re saying at Tweed, points to airlines wanting to see at least 6,000 feet before they’ll even begin to talk.
Tweed stands at 5,600 feet with a plan to expand by another 1,000 feet and the land to do it — although Tweed, like Sikorsky, has a wetlands problem and its plan has yet to go through the environmental wringer.
Certainly that 6,000-foot guideline is true of airlines that operate versions of the Boeing 737. Avelo, as a startup with 737-700 models it bought from Southwest, was an exception in part because it can anticipate a longer strip at Tweed within a few years.
But, Dillon said, the world is changing. Sikorsky would not need to lengthen its runways (it has two, and Tweed will have just one, giving Sikorsky an advantage). Some airlines are fine with shorter runways even with midsize jetliners, he said.
Startup Breeze Airways, for example, operates Airbus 220 aircraft that can use runways under 5,000 feet. “And we are expecting in the relatively near future, there’s going to be improvements in the vertical takeoff and landing aircraft,” Dillon said.
The state has made $7 million available for Sikorsky improvements including a repaving of the main runway. And Lamont is not opposed to more state spending. “With the federal money we’ve got, some of that goes for airports. We’re going to look at the best way to make investments there.”
Lehman, the state economic and community development commissioner — a former Goldman Sachs partner — considers private investment crucial at Sikorsky, along with CAA money.
“Could there be private money from perhaps a competitor that’s interested in Sikorsky? We know for example that there are airlines that are interested in Sikorsky that aren’t interested in Tweed right now,” he said. “Businesses always worry about competition but from the state’s perspective we want our residents to have a lot of options. There could be two viable airports. We want to explore if that’s possible.”
Dillon wants to see coordination between airports rather than a bidding war for airline routes. “We were never against the development of Tweed, but that development needs to be done with the cooperation of the system. And it makes it very difficult now with a for-profit entity that has entered the arena.”
Scanlon sees it differently. “The unique, $100 million public-private partnership project we are undertaking here at Tweed is seen as a national success story that has already spawned six new direct flights and over 100 new jobs,” he said.
Personally, I’d like to see cheap, daily service to Washington National out of Tweed but that might be too much to ask. Both airports have huge hurdles in the way of expansion and advantages the other doesn’t enjoy. Sikorsky, for example, has better highway access and a Fairfield County address, barely.
But Tweed’s head start and its innovative deal with Avports should earn it some breathing room. One success is better than two perennial struggles of the sort we’ve seen for decades in Connecticut.
dhaar@hearstmediact.com
Dan Haar is Columnist and Associate Editor at Hearst Connecticut Media, writing about the intersection of business, public policy and politics and how the issues affect the people of Connecticut.

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