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February 5, 2024

$30M Bradley Airport hangar project aims to capitalize on increased corporate jet use, despite business travel’s slow recovery

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon stands outside Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.

Of all the “new normals” that the pandemic brought us, one that stubbornly continues to linger is the downturn in business travel.

For a time while COVID was at its height, in-person meetings, once seen as essential, were entirely replaced by the ubiquitous video conference. And in the years since, many companies have continued to realize the savings from the ability to hop on a laptop rather than a plane to connect with both colleagues and clients.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), said 2023 was a year of continued recovery for air travel in general, and at the state’s largest hub, Bradley International Airport.

“We ​captured ​back ​a ​lot ​of ​our ​pre-pandemic ​traffic,” he said. ​“But ​if ​you ​look ​at ​where ​we’re ​at ​right ​now, ​on ​any ​given ​day ​we’re ​still ​about ​5% ​to ​7% ​​below ​where ​we ​were ​pre-pandemic, and ​a ​good ​portion ​of ​that ​is ​related ​to ​this ​business ​travel component.”

Overall passenger traffic at Bradley Airport, from January 2023 through November 2023, was up 8.1% from 2022, but 7% behind pre-pandemic 2019, according to CAA data.

A survey of employers released in 2023 by Deloitte did show growth in the sector, and predicted that business travel could see full recovery to pre-pandemic levels by late 2024.

But the same survey showed that many companies are continuing to eye their travel budget as a place where they can cut costs and increase sustainability by reducing employee trips.

When travel does happen these days, it’s more often short range — managers are approving trips within driving distance rather than shelling out for flights.

“We ​have ​felt ​all ​along ​that ​despite ​the ​fact ​that ​business ​travel ​across ​the ​board ​was ​down ​during ​the ​pandemic, ​those ​companies ​that ​have ​external ​customers ​would ​have ​to ​return ​to ​business ​travel,” said Dillon.

“But ​it’s ​the ​intra-​company ​travel — for ​example, ​a ​company ​that’s ​headquartered ​here ​in ​Connecticut, ​but ​has ​operations ​on ​the ​West ​Coast — ​are ​their ​employees ​going ​to ​travel ​to ​interact ​with ​their ​peers, ​or ​are ​they ​going ​to ​continue ​to ​do ​that ​via ​Zoom ​and ​other ​platforms?” he said. “​That, ​I ​think, ​is ​the ​big question.”

Private aviation’s appeal

The recent unreliability of the airline industry in general has been a drag on business travel’s recovery, experts said.

“Their ​schedules ​haven’t ​kept ​up, ​their ​reliability ​hasn’t ​kept ​up,” said Doug Gollan, who writes about the private aviation industry. “​There ​are ​all ​sorts ​of ​different ​issues ​impacting airline service.”

“With ​flights ​booked ​to ​the ​gills, ​if ​you ​miss ​your ​connection ​at ​a ​hub ​or your ​flight ​is ​canceled, ​it’s ​not ​arriving ​at ​your ​destination ​an ​hour ​later, it’s ‘​we ​can’t ​get ​you ​there ​till ​the ​next ​day.’”

Gollan runs a subscription database that shows his clients flexible ways to access travel by private jet, including memberships, charters and jet cards that allow companies to buy a certain number of flying hours.

He said of the subscribers to his service who are just starting to consider their options, “over ​60% ​of ​them ​say ​the ​reason ​that ​they’re ​looking ​to ​fly ​privately ​is ​a ​bad ​airline service.”

Private jet use had seen a steady rise in the decade before the pandemic. In the last three years, that increase has been more dramatic.

By some accounts, overall private jet use in the U.S. has increased by 20% over 2019 levels.

Gollan said more company executives began to realize the convenience of private aviation during the pandemic.

“Time ​is ​money,” he said. That’s led to what Gollan calls “situational use” of private jet travel by companies. “If ​there’s two ​things ​private ​aviation ​does, ​it ​saves ​you ​time, and ​there’s ​no ​such ​thing ​as ​lost ​baggage.”

The trend is observable even at a smaller commercial airport like Bradley, which saw a 22.4% increase in private jet flights between 2000 and 2002.

The airport hosted 12,346 private flights in 2022, and 11,953 in 2023, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

And those numbers may get a boost in the near future: Bradley just announced a major deal with New York-based private jet service company Sky Harbour to build a $30 million hangar complex at the airport.

The deal encompasses ​​the ​construction ​of ​five ​private ​hangars ​that ​will ​include ​lounge ​and ​office ​space, ​​together ​totaling ​about ​92,000 square feet.

Sky Harbour’s Chief Financial Officer Francisco Gonzalez said the company’s interest in Hartford stems from a significant deficit of hangar space for private aviation in the tri-state area.

“The ​business, ​in ​terms ​of ​demand ​for ​business ​aviation, ​continues ​to ​grow,” Gonzalez said. “​And ​where ​do ​you ​put ​all ​these ​planes? Bradley is ​a ​great ​airport ​in ​terms ​of ​its ​location.”

Gonzalez said the makeup of the clientele at Sky Harbour’s sites around the country varies widely, but he expects Bradley to house a significant business presence, including “some ​corporate ​fleets ​who ​right ​now ​may ​have ​their ​planes ​all ​over ​this ​region. ​They’re ​looking ​for ​a ​good, ​business-friendly airport to ​consolidate ​their ​operations. ​​And, ​we ​will ​be ​providing ​them ​with ​the ​opportunity ​to ​have ​the ​real ​estate ​that ​they ​need ​to ​accomplish ​that.”

Regional shortage

Sky Harbour’s development will join fixed-base operators Atlantic Aviation and Signature Aviation, which also host private jet facilities at Bradley.

The CAA’s Dillon confirms that the ​shortage ​of ​hangar ​facilities ​regionally is benefitting not just Bradley.

“These ​are ​very ​expensive ​aircraft; people ​want ​them ​inside ​a ​hangar ​facility ​versus ​parked ​on ​a ​ramp ​area,” he said. “​A ​lot ​of ​the ​activity ​that’s ​been ​brought ​to ​some ​of ​our ​general ​aviation ​airports — ​Waterbury-Oxford ​comes ​to ​mind — ​is ​activity ​that was ​over ​at ​Teterboro ​Airport in ​New ​York, ​but ​because ​of ​the ​congestion ​at ​Teterboro ​and ​the ​lack ​of ​hangar ​space, those aircraft have relocated.”

Waterbury-Oxford is also in the middle of an investment deal with private aviation company Clay Lacy, which is building a new $40 million full-service, fixed-base operator and corporate hangar facility. It is due to open later this year.

Dillon said the expected relocation of private aircraft attracted by the new investment at Bradley will be good for the local economy all around.

And, while the dynamics may be changed and the improvement is slow, he remains hopeful that a full recovery for business travel more broadly remains in the cards.

Part of that confidence was reflected in the Connecticut Airport Authority and MetroHartford Alliance recently announcing plans to recruit a direct flight from Bradley International Airport to London, an effort that will likely require a revenue guarantee from the state and strong backing from the business community.

“We ​do ​meet ​with ​travel ​managers ​of ​some ​of ​the ​area’s ​largest ​employers, ​and ​I ​think ​they ​have ​indicated ​that ​business ​travel ​is ​resuming, ​that ​in ​2024 ​it’s ​going ​to ​continue ​to ​be ​restored,” Dillon said.

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