November 22, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 11:45 pm

Bradley On Fast Track To Independence

The way Connecticut operates Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks will change soon, possibly as early as next year.

As Dan Malloy assumes the governor's seat in January and with strong bi-partisan support in the Connecticut General Assembly, control of the state-owned airport will shift from the Connecticut Department of Transportation to an independent airport authority less bound by the constrictions of government.

"This is a critical issue," said Tim Bannon, co-chair of Malloy's transition team and the governor-elect's future chief of staff. "Early action on this will be important to send a message that Connecticut is committed to economic growth."

Bradley is the 57th busiest passenger airport in the nation and the 31st busiest cargo airport, but ridership dropped 23 percent from 2006 and 2009. On Wednesday, the airport began flights with its newest airline, JetBlue Airways, the latest in a year of ups and downs for new routes.

In order for the state to recruit new businesses, it needs an efficient and easy way to move people and products to desired destinations, Bannon said. To meet those needs, Bradley administration needs to be nimble and responsive.

The question is no longer whether an independent Bradley Airport Authority will be established, it's just a matter of how it is established, said State Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, chairman of the Commerce Committee. Some issues still need to be debated — such as whether the authority would have jurisdiction over the state's seaports — and whether the changes will be incremental or all at once.

"You could do it in one big bite, which is much harder to swallow," LeBeau said.

The issue will gain serious traction in the next legislative session starting in January, and chances of it passing are very good, said State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. With the governor behind the issue — Malloy proposed a Bradley Airport Authority during his campaign — and the fact that the change can be made with no immediate funding increases, the issue should have broad support in the session.

"It is the second largest airport in New England, but outside of the immediate area, not a lot of people know about it," Kissel said. "I'm not sure we are maximizing the full potential."

Outside of Hawaii and Alaska, two airports are state-owned and run by transportation departments: Bradley and Baltimore Washington International in Maryland.

The problem with Bradley's operation is that it moves slowly and is held to the same rigors as other state government operations, proponents say. When recruiting employees, for example, potential new hires must be vetted through DOT headquarters — not just through Bradley's administration — and the salaries are limited by the state requirements, which are below the market-level compensation packages needed to draw in top talent.

The position of airport marketing director — an employee critical to recruiting new airlines, creating new routes and boosting ridership — was vacant for 18 months.

"It is just slow as molasses," LeBeau said.

DOT officials didn't want to comment for this story as it deals with policy issues, said John Wallace, Bradley spokesman.

The Bradley Board of Directors, made up of appointed business leaders from around Connecticut, have advocated for more authority over key airport positions and budget items, said Oz Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance and former Bradley board member.

"The airport is one of the most underappreciated and under-leveraged economic assets that we have," Griebel said.

In addition to the problems with hiring, issues arose over airport officials' ability to effectively carry out their mission. When Gov. M. Jodi Rell imposed a travel ban on state employees, the ban applied to Bradley as well, which made recruiting new airlines and routes very difficult, Griebel said. The general consensus is that DOT runs the transportation side of the operations very well — such as using snow plows to keep the runway clear — but more autonomy is needed on the business side.

Baltimore Washington International is run that way. While state-owned and under the auspices of the Maryland Department of Transportation, the airport is run by a separate division within the DOT — the Maryland Aviation Administration — with special privileges: the salary of 12 airport positions is dictated by the aviation market, not the state-mandated salary levels; the procurement process is streamlined; and finances and human resources are controlled in-house.

The benefit of the Maryland DOT retaining an oversight role over the airport is the facility easily works collaboratively with the highway and seaport divisions of the DOT on issues such as building and maintaining the roads into the airport, said Paul Wiedefeld, Baltimore Washington International executive director.

Unlike other Maryland state departments focused on revenues and confined to their budgets, the airport is focused on increasing ridership by keeping flight prices low and spurring economic and job growth, Wiedefeld said.

"We have our eyes on a bigger prize that just revenues," Wiedefeld said.

Malloy's plans for Bradley include the state retaining ownership of the facility with the independent authority running the operations.

Bradley operates on a budget of $55 million that comes exclusively from the Bradley Enterprise Fund. To establish an authority without needing more money, Bradley's budget will be redirected.

Key to the success of Bradley in the future is increasing ridership, increasing the number of carriers and their routes, increasing businesses operating at the airport, increasing cargo and increasing the number of businesses in the airport vicinity, LeBeau said.

Malloy's hope is for Bradley to be more productive and augment revenue through growth, not through increased fees, Bannon said.

"A modern, well-managed Bradley International Airport is one of the key foundations of a booming economy in Connecticut," Bannon said.

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