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March 25, 2019

CT Airport Authority sees growth potential beyond Bradley International

Photo | HBJ File Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon.
Photo | Contributed An overview of Hartford-Brainard Airport.
Photo | HBJ File Lindsey Rutka, co-owner of Hartford Jet Center, which is eyeing new hangar development at Hartford-Brainard Airport.

If Bradley International Airport is Alec Baldwin, the five regional airports overseen by the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) are his less-famous brothers: They don't operate on the same level, but they're still making moves.

“We do have development discussions underway at every airport that we own,” said Kevin Dillon, CAA's executive director. “Some are very advanced where there are signed term sheets, and there are others that are still in the discussion phase, but at each one of our airports we have some level of development that we're discussing.”

That development ranges from new airplane hangars at three or more CAA airports to the possibility of bringing commercial fights and developing a hotel at Groton-New London Airport. That's in addition to preliminary talks about CAA possibly taking some operational role at Tweed-New Haven Airport.

Efforts to bring CAA's five smaller airports, which collectively recorded a $3.5 million operating loss in fiscal 2018, to their full potential are being informed by market research that's been done on the needs of individual and corporate travelers, Dillon said. All contribute to Dillon's vision for CAA as a statewide network of airports that compliment each other in terms of the services they provide, and are operated to their maximum capacity for aeronautical and non-flight uses.

“If you have one entity operating these significant facilities, you assure yourself of that coordination,” Dillon said.

Challenges and opportunities

One of the biggest efforts underway is deciding the future of Tweed-New Haven Airport. Talks between CAA, Tweed's airport authority and the city of New Haven are in their infancy, Dillon said. At the moment, the only agreed-upon principle is that activities at CAA airports and Tweed should be coordinated.

But Dillon sees mutual benefits to some kind of operational partnership or acquisition. For starters, Tweed currently pays outside firms for engineering services CAA could provide for free if an agreement was reached. A merger would also better position Tweed and CAA to approach the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for grants, since only one entity (likely CAA) would be responsible for grant planning, Dillon said.

However, not everybody is on board with a possible merger. Some high-ranking state legislators on both sides of the aisle — namely Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney (who represents New Haven) and and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) — have expressed skepticism, noting CAA and Tweed's competing interests.

“The CAA is concerned with Bradley Airport, which wouldn't want competition from Tweed,” Looney recently told members of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking to the New Haven Register, Fasano called the idea “fantasy land,” and questioned why CAA would want to take over “another entity that doesn't make money.”

Public skepticism aside, the CAA/Tweed talks dovetail with continued negotiations with AFCO AvPORTS Management LLC, the Dulles, Va.-based private operator of Tweed. For more than a year, CAA has been considering outsourcing operations management of three of its general aviation airports — Hartford-Brainard, Waterbury-Oxford and Groton-New London — to AvPORTS as a cost-saving measure.

“We don't have a specific timeline,” Dillon said of CAA's discussions with AvPORTS. “We're interested in trying to reach an understanding with them as soon as possible.”

CAA and AvPORTS have agreed that 16 full-time unionized employees would, under any deal, remain in place. That had been a sticking point in the negotiations.

Meantime, one of the airports that AvPORTS would manage under that deal, Groton-New London, could once again start offering commercial flights, Dillon said.

The 489-acre airport is only about 65 miles away from Bradley, but given its proximity to businesses like Pfizer and Electric Boat, not to mention casinos and the Coast Guard Academy, Dillon sees opportunity in expanding Groton-New London's services to commercial flights.

“We've done a fair amount of market research down there as to what destinations people are looking for, and what companies are likely to utilize at the airport,” Dillon said. “It's a matter of convincing an airline to start operations at the airport.”

Additionally, CAA is looking into possible hotel development at Groton-New London, Dillon said.

That airport is also among the four with advanced plans to develop airplane hangars on-site. The other three, Hartford-Brainard, Windham and Waterbury-Oxford, already have signed term sheets with developers Hartford Jet Center, Windham Air Services and Atlantic Aviation, respectively.

“At Hartford-Brainard, (there's) a heavy presence of privately owned aircraft,” Dillon said. “But some of the hangar development that we're looking at along with Hartford Jet Center would give the potential to handle some smaller corporate jet aircraft.”

Hangar development facilities are usually constructed by third parties, which absorb the cost, Dillon said. Once they're up, CAA collects ground rent and fees associated with aircraft parking.

The Waterbury-Oxford hangar development, if greenlighted, would be used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Dillon said. That would make Waterbury-Oxford the only CAA airport outside Bradley that can accept direct flights from foreign countries.

In a recent interview, CAA Board Chairman Tony Sheridan cited the moves Dillon is making with development at both the regionals and Bradley when expressing his optimism for the year ahead for the authority.

”I believe that growth will happen,” Sheridan said. “There are a lot of exciting changes (coming).”

Moving forward, identifying and pursuing opportunities for development will remain a key part of CAA's business strategy for its five smaller airports. While they might not have as much space as airports that have opened golf courses on their property, Dillon sees plenty of potential for uses of airport space for things like flight schools, restaurants, and aircraft repair and maintenance facilities.

“At all of our airports — Bradley as well as the five general aviation airports — we do have developable property,” Dillon said. “We're constantly out there marketing.”

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