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September 30, 2021 On the Record: Q&A

Avports CEO Roberts leads charge to turn New Haven’s Tweed into full-service airport

PHOTOS | Courtesy Avports CEO Jorge Roberts speaks at a press conference announcing the launch of low-cost flights to Florida at New Haven’s Tweed Airport.

The prospect of a full-service, bustling airport in New Haven has tantalized business leaders across the region for decades. Now airport manager Avports, led by CEO Jorge Roberts, is taking steps to make that dream a reality.

Avports, which operates 10 airports nationwide, has proposed a $100 million revamp of Tweed New Haven Regional Airport, in concert with startup airline Avelo. Any upgrade to the sleepy facility has long been stymied by politically influential neighbors in New Haven’s Morris Cove and Annex neighborhoods.

Now Roberts, 45, and Tweed Executive Director Sean Scanlon seem to have many New Haven officials on board and leaders across the region excited by the airport’s potential as an economic driver and job creator. (It doesn’t hurt that Scanlon’s side hustle is as a state representative and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee.)

Roberts brings to the Tweed project a background both in airport management and finance, with experience in business development for the Carlyle Airport Group.

Avports, a subsidiary of The Goldman Sachs Group, has pledged to operate Tweed for another 43 years and spend $70 million of its own capital on the transformation. Key to that expansion is the arrival of Avelo Airlines, scheduled to launch low-cost flights to Florida starting in November.

Roberts recently talked with New Haven Biz about Avport's Tweed plans. Here's what he had to say:

Let’s visit Tweed New Haven Airport five years from now. What do you see?

The vision is various: It’s an airport that is set up to serve the demand from the market, the need of residents wanting access to more destinations. Also the business community will have access to business travel and routes that will feed into increased economic activity and create more jobs for the region and city.

But also an airport that is poised to be both environmentally and financially sustainable, areas that we understand are critical for the needs of the community. Then a facility including an expanded runway that will enable carriers to satisfy that demand, operate safely and meet the needs of the community.

Can you tell me more about the timeline on Avport’s plans for Tweed?

This started well before last year. There’s been a lot of work by the stakeholders on resolving the legal questions for the expansion of the runway. That was resolved, then we embarked on a master plan process that received a lot of input from the stakeholders, including the community.

The next step is starting the environmental assessment process. That’s going to take a year and allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to really study the impacts of the new facilities and expanded service, and equally importantly to receive input from the community.

Once that process stops, the FAA will issue a FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] rider, but also recommendations on mitigating any potential impacts. That will enable us and the authority to embark on construction and expand these facilities that are currently choking growth and the ability of the airport to serve the demand.

That process of design and construction will take two years. We hope to open the new facilities in early 2024.

How did the deal with Avelo Airlines come about?

They're a new carrier in the new low-cost carrier segment. That’s an emerging segment in the U.S., although it’s been very well developed in Europe, which allows for more affordable fares.

Avelo was looking for an East Coast base and they saw that Tweed New Haven was in one of the most underserved markets. With their accessible fares, they're able to satisfy the market and they felt that operationally they could start now.

Obviously they’re interested in an expanded runway to really allow them to grow. For Avelo, it’s about volume. Lower fares, but volume to make it a viable operation.

The way that we came together is that Avelo saw that we were embarking on a long-term vision and that matched very well with their goals.

We’re also looking to operate this very efficiently in a way that makes it attractive and viable for them, versus other airports in the surrounding areas that are at max capacity.

In New York the demand outstrips the capacity even though there are new projects. For them operating in those markets is very costly. This is really a bet for the long term, the same for Avports. This is really a long-term operation and vision.

Jorge Roberts speaks to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker.

Avelo is a new airline; are you convinced they will be there for the long haul?

There are a couple of questions there, one is why do airlines come to an airport? It’s because there’s a market.

If you look at the history of airlines in this country, there’s been a lot of consolidation, others have gone bankrupt. Nonetheless the service is still there, there’s always going to be a carrier serving that demand.

I feel very confident about Andrew Levy, who is the founder, chairman and CEO of Avelo Airlines. He was also previously a co-founder and president of Allegiant Air, which is one of the most successful low-cost carriers [that is not currently serving Tweed] and very profitable.

He sees an opportunity in the [New Haven] market and I think that the business model that he brings, with more accessible fares, fills a void in the market that a lot of other carriers are opening up. He’s setting it up for success.

At the same time, there’s an underlying market there too in the event he is not successful. We’ll do everything we can to enable that success but if not, there will be another carrier that will satisfy that demand.

How does Tweed fit in with Avport’s portfolio of airports?

We approach our relationship at every airport individually — I would not say that one airport is more important than the others because that’s what’s enabled us to be successful over the last 94 years. We really attend to the individual needs of our clients.

In the case of the New Haven airport, it's really expanding, enhancing the relationships we’ve developed for the last 22 years. The need here was access to capital to enable them to develop these facilities, but also to assume the risk.

If something goes wrong, it’s our responsibility now, to make it financially viable. We feel confident we have that ability and that history of doing that.

I think the conditions are there with the expertise and now the alignment between Avports, the Authority, the city — but equally important with the community as well. I think there’s a lot of support and enthusiasm and momentum to position the airport for success.

How do you plan to address the concerns of the neighborhoods around Tweed?

The reason we’ve been successful over 94 years is that we’ve learned how to coexist and be good neighbors with the community. Here it’s no different.

The concerns of the community in New Haven, it’s something we see at every airport. In order for this project to work over the long term, the community has to be a key stakeholder and supporter of the airport.

The goal is to make it sustainable and the vision here is long term, not short term. We’ll continue to be responsive, we’re going to continue that dialogue. We have not shied away from it. Both Avport and the Airport Authority want to create that spirit of transparency and just be straightforward and accountable and resolve as much as we can of those concerns and needs.

What are the challenges and opportunities for airports right now?

The pandemic has allowed the industry to take a hard look in terms of how we can capture the benefits of the age of accelerated innovation. How do we bring technology to solve a lot of the environmental concerns?

There’s a lot of focus on climate change and that’s something we are very concerned about too in making sure we future-proof both the facilities and our operation.

On the opportunity side, it’s become much more affordable to be a sustainable airport, putting in LEED principles, designing facilities that can be very cost-effective but environmentally sustainable.

Things like solar panels are becoming much more ubiquitous that allow us to meet those challenges.

We’re seeing things in the future like electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft: There are a dozen companies racing to develop it and the FAA is getting more comfortable with the technology. That is going to be an interesting disrupter.

The other is autonomous vehicles, both on the land and air side, along with the electrification of vehicles and aircraft and the use of hydrogen power. Those are all challenges that need to be met with a nimble and commercial-minded operation.

We bring that piece, allowing us to bring that technology to an airport so it can be a beacon and catalyst for economic growth.

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