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November 21, 2022 Economic Development Series: Week 3

Amid fight for control of Sikorsky Airport, advocates push for commercial passenger service

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The Stratford-based Sikorsky Memorial Airport (shown above) — currently used for recreational, corporate and government flights — is projecting 65,000 landings and takeoffs in 2022.

Sikorsky Memorial Airport has a rich history dating back to 1911, when it was the site of the country’s first air show.

Since then, the Stratford-based airport has undergone numerous name changes and, most recently, a power struggle over its future.

The city of Bridgeport currently owns the airport but is weighing whether to sell it for $10 million to the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which operates Bradley International Airport and five of the state’s seven general aviation airports, including Hartford-Brainard and Waterbury-Oxford.

The Sikorsky Memorial Airport Commission voted in May to move forward with the sale, but the Bridgeport City Council hasn’t yet signed off. A vote on the possible sale has been delayed with no decision date currently set in stone.

Meantime, the town of Stratford has argued the airport would be in better hands if it purchased the property and hired a third party to run it.

The airport is currently used for recreational, corporate and government use, but the CAA and town of Stratford both want Sikorsky to add commercial passenger air service. One goal is to attract Fairfield County travelers, who often fly out of New York rather than making the trip to Bradley Airport in Windsor Locks.

To make commercial service happen, a significant infrastructure investment would need to be made in the airport, officials said.

“Local control is important,” said Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick. “Our activities and our decisions will benefit this region, as opposed to having something that’s run by an entity (CAA) 70 miles away.”

Laura Hoydick

Local vs. state control

If Stratford were to convince the Bridgeport City Council that it was best equipped to run the airport, Hoydick said “we’d reinstitute passenger service and utilize the fuel-base operations that we currently have there.”

Hoydick said the town has had discussions with Breeze Airways about passenger service at Sikorsky. Breeze — a startup airline launched last year by serial aviation entrepreneur David Neeleman, co-founder of JetBlue — has led an aggressive expansion at Bradley International Airport over the last few years.

Hoydick said it’s too soon to estimate how much her town — or other private partners — would have to invest to make the airport viable for commercial service.

“I have met with the (Federal Aviation Administration) several times and have had many conversations about the prospect of Stratford purchasing the airport,” she said. “We’ve also talked to several third parties who are interested in operating the airport. (Advocating for airport ownership) is not something I take lightly and it’s not a decision that I made spur of the moment.”

CAA Executive Director Kevin Dillon said he estimates it would take about a $62-million investment to prepare Sikorsky Airport for commercial passenger service.

“Should the CAA have the opportunity to manage Sikorsky Airport, our first priority will be to update the airfield and landside infrastructure, with the goal of securing commercial passenger service,” Dillon said.

Dillon said the CAA has the expertise to run airports, giving it an advantage in the quest for control.

“I think we can do it more efficiently than bringing in an outside entity because we won’t have to duplicate the engineering staff or the operational staff, for example,” Dillon said. “We already have that experience residing in-house.”

Dillon said the CAA has a major airline — which he declined to name due to a non-disclosure agreement — that has expressed interest in operating at Sikorsky.

Joseph Ganim

Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim said it’s more than likely the city council will decide to sell the airport. He also noted Sikorsky Memorial has seen an increase in passenger traffic during the pandemic as private jet use became more popular amid a spike in commercial flight cancellations and a desire by some to avoid congested airports.

Sikorsky is projecting about 65,000 takeoffs and landings in 2022, up from 63,709 in 2021 and 56,667 in 2020.

“The FAA categorized us as a general aviation airport of ‘national importance,’ ” Ganim said.

Critical for business

Airport supporters said Sikorsky Memorial plays a significant role — both economically and historically – for Fairfield County.

The airport — visited in the 1930s by such renowned aviators as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe — “is critical for business success and economic prosperity,” said Michelle Muoio, airport manager since 2017.

Michelle Muoio

“The impact reaches far beyond the footprint of the airport,” said Muoio, who noted there is a direct economic impact “such as airport-related jobs and the goods and services sold and a little bit of cargo activity. And, there are also indirect impacts like the dollars that are spent in the community because of the airport.”

Muoio said an economic analysis of the airport’s benefits will be underway soon. She expects it to show the airport has helped create between 400 and 1,100 jobs with a total economic output of between $60 million and $230 million.

Pilot David Faile represents 750 airport users — primarily pilots — as president of the Friends of Sikorsky. The goal of the group, Faile said, is to promote the airport and, when possible, make it better for the business community and region as a whole.

David Faile is a pilot and president of Friends of Sikorsky, which promotes Sikorsky Memorial Airport.

About 20 or so years ago, Faile said, neighbors would often complain about the noise stemming from the airport. The louder jet engines that were once on almost every plane have since been retired and replaced with quieter engines alleviating the fears of most of the neighbors, he said.

Faile said the airport also supports many of the corporations in Fairfield County.

“We have a lot of large corporations around the county and many of them have jets at the airport that are used for business purposes,” Faile said. “Other corporations that do not have jets, may have people fly in to do business with them. So, the airport provides kind of a business tool for people. There are also flight schools at the airport, which are beneficial.”

Faile also noted that the pandemic helped some smaller, general aviation airfields like Sikorsky, as passengers were less inclined to go to larger airports.

“During COVID, the airlines (at major airports), really curtailed their operations,” he said. “In many cases, that increased travel here at the airport as it was easier for someone to use a corporate jet charter, or their own jet.”

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