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September 26, 2022

With new direct route to Jamaica, Bradley Airport eyes more domestic/international service, 10M passengers

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Kevin Dillon is the executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, overseer of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.
Click below for more information about projects that are proposed at Bradley International.
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Landing Spirit Airlines and a new nonstop service from Bradley International Airport to Jamaica was a deal years in the making, according to Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin A. Dillon.

Bringing a new destination and airline together requires a great deal of work behind the scenes — and some financial incentives — before a service can take flight.

Dillon is still celebrating the recently announced and long-awaited Jamaica flight, but he’s not resting on his laurels, pushing forward with efforts to add more domestic and international nonstop routes with an ambitious goal to increase Bradley Airport’s annual passenger count to 10 million. That would be significantly higher volume than the 7 million passengers Bradley recorded in 2019 — right before the pandemic upended air travel.

“I do believe that if we are successful in continuing to add airlines and destinations, we could become a 10-million passenger airport,” Dillon said. “That would put us in a nice solid position in the medium hub category.”

Population demand

State and airport officials gathered in early September to announce that Spirit, starting Dec. 15, will offer nonstop service from Bradley to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for the first time. The flights will run year-round, four times a week.

Bradley in Windsor Locks is New England’s second-busiest airport after Logan in Boston.

Connecticut is home to the fifth-largest population of residents with Jamaican ancestry in the U.S., with more than 56,000 here, according to census data.

Dillon said working for a Jamaica flight was “really a reflection of the huge Jamaican population that lives in the Greater Hartford area as well as throughout Connecticut. So, I felt all along that would be a very successful market.”

The Jamaica route will also transport cargo and serve residents from Connecticut and surrounding states looking for a convenient, direct flight to a popular vacation destination.

Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon at a press conference earlier this year announcing the launch of Spirit Airlines’ new nonstop service to Jamaica.

Dillon said securing a new deal is a challenge and takes years of negotiating, not only because the Jamaica route was, at the time, speculative, but since Bradley is also competing with every airport in the country for limited aircraft.

“For years, we have been talking to a number of carriers here about what we saw as the potential for Jamaica. But when you have these speculative routes, it needs an added boost to convince an airline that you’re willing to share some of the risk, and that’s why we were very fortunate that the state also felt that this was a very, very important route to deliver here at Bradley,” Dillon said.

The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits airports or aviation agencies from offering revenue guarantees, but the state Department of Economic and Community Development could. DECD drafted a $2-million incentive that subsidizes the airline for any per-flight revenue shortfalls in the first two years.

“So, in this particular case, we were able to convince Spirit Airlines that we think (Jamaica) is a good route to begin with, and the state was willing to put forward this revenue guarantee, and that’s really what helped us get it done,” Dillon said.

Bradley also has its own incentive program to waive certain rates and charges to airlines, as well as provide marketing to promote airlines and destinations.

Passenger targets

Pre-pandemic, about 7 million passengers used Bradley each year. Passenger traffic is rebounding as the worst of the health crisis continues to fade — through June of this year Bradley saw 2.73 million passengers, up 57% from the same time period a year earlier, but down 18% from 2019. Dillon said his goal is to reach 10 million passengers at some point in the future by recruiting more airlines and direct flights.

Breeze Airways this summer started nonstop service between Bradley and Las Vegas, Jacksonville and other cities.

Domestically, “Seattle is still a primary market we’re after,” Dillon said, because that city and Connecticut are both aerospace industry epicenters, with Boeing there and Pratt & Whitney here.

Demand exists for connectivity between Connecticut and the Pacific Northwest, Dillon said, and Seattle would also serve as an additional jumping-off point for flights to Asia.

He’s also aiming for more direct flights to cities like Austin and Milwaukee, “where we’re seeing a fair amount of demand,” from their data collection on passengers, which includes studying zip codes of passengers and flight destinations, whether direct or connecting.

This helps the authority know where passengers are coming from and where they are going, and to gauge new potential direct-flight markets.

Sometimes passengers are willing to drive to New York or Boston for a direct flight instead of catching a connecting flight from Bradley.

“So, when we see that we have enough passengers per day going to a particular destination, that becomes a target city, and that’s information we share with the airlines to try to educate them on the potential market,” he said. “We try to determine why we have people traveling to those destinations … and we have demonstrated time and again that if we have nonstop service, (to a certain destination) we will capture 80% of the ridership.”

The airport authority also studies Connecticut’s business environment to see any connection between local and national companies and potential business travel destinations.

Bradley’s size and proximity are an added bonus for passengers who might prefer a small airport to New York or Boston, and it was Bradley’s smaller size that perhaps helped it lead the way in airport recovery in the post-COVID world of air travel.

“The pandemic set back aviation in general across the country,” he said, with overall air travel at one point falling 97%.

International flights

The CAA was active throughout COVID negotiating with airlines and working to add more runs.

Leisure travel led the recovery, riding on people’s pent-up demand for vacations, Dillon said.

“We climbed our way back, and while we’re not fully recovered, we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said.

Business travel hasn’t returned as robustly, Dillon said, and it’s now a waiting game to see how that market bounces back.

Looking ahead, resuming Aer Lingus flights to Dublin, Ireland, and offering regular direct flights to London are also on his priority list.

Aer Lingus suspended flights out of Bradley in 2020, but could resume them next spring, Dillon said.

“A lot of that is going to depend on their view of the business travel market … because that’s a very important component to that trans-Atlantic service, but I do feel very confident we’ll see Aer Lingus back here in the very near future,” he said.

He’s also trying to get nonstop service to London.

“I think that would be one of our most successful routes,” for both business and vacation travelers and due to the high level of connectivity for other spots in Europe, he said.

But like the Jamaica deal, putting together all the moving parts, and being patient as well as persistent, is key.

“It takes years to educate airlines and get them onboard,” he said. “Some of the work we’ve done with Spirit to educate them on the market, combined with the revenue guarantee, is really what put it over the finish line.”

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