The lack of a major airport in Fairfield County has long been the cause of grumbling among travelers both to and from the region. But solving the problem brings to mind the punchline of an old Steven Wright joke: “You can’t have everything … where would you put it?”
“There just isn’t the real estate for that in Fairfield County,” said Pete Gioia, vice president and economist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA). “And even if there was, you’d still have the problem of getting traffic to and from the airport.”
“I don’t know where you’d build one,” agreed Steve Gagnon, assurance director for Reynolds & Rowella, a regional accounting firm based in New Canaan. “Maybe Bridgeport?”
“Maybe” is the operative word when it comes to Bridgeport. The city owns Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, which in 2015 reinstated commercial service for the first time since 1999. Service, however, is limited: the 800-acre, two-runway Sikorsky is the hub for Tailwind Air Service, a limited schedule and charter airline based in New York City that specializes in seaplanes.
Earlier this month, Sikorsky’s rebuilt runway 6-24 was opened at a reported cost of $46 million, with the state and Bridgeport on the hook for roughly 10 percent of that figure and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) supplying the rest.
Still, many of the site’s buildings are nearly 50 years old, and Bridgeport officials are wary of spending more money on an airport that is reportedly losing in excess of $500,000 per year. City officials have been exploring the possibility of selling Sikorsky Airport, either to the state or to a private operator. Thomas Gill, director of Bridgeport’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, did not return calls seeking comment.
Discounting Sikorsky and the 248-acre Danbury Municipal Airport leaves Fairfield business travelers with something of a Hobson’s choice when it comes to getting from here to there. Bradley International — the second-largest and second-busiest airport in New England, after Boston’s Logan International — in Hartford County’s Windsor Locks is a popular choice, though traffic, travel time to and from the site and expense of tickets can be negative factors; ditto Westchester County Airport in White Plains. That leaves the metropolitan New York area’s three major airports — LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International, and Newark (N.J.) Liberty International — and, to a lesser degree, Stewart International in the southern Hudson Valley — as the other options.
“Being a Norwalk-based company that interacts with clients nationwide, the biggest issue we face is convenience when it comes to airport travel options around the Fairfield County area,” said Bill Van Wyck, president and chief innovation officer at health care tech company Zillion. “While we have different airport options, most lack the necessary convenience we need.
“However,” he continued, “this does not necessarily stop our team from flying. Even if we did have better flying options, we most likely would not utilize them since regional plane travel ends up taking longer, is cost-prohibitive and requires a car service to shuttle back and forth to the airports.”
“Trying to fly out of JFK, LaGuardia or Newark can be a real hassle,” said Gioia. “Bradley can be an hour to an hour-and-a-half away. But there has been one substantial change this year.”
That change is Aer Lingus’ recent start of direct service from Bradley to Dublin, with travelers able to connect in the Irish capital to more than 25 United Kingdom and European airports. Gioia said that such a service expansion would be attractive to travelers throughout the region with business in Europe.
And that is not the only change at Bradley. Cleveland-based Flexjet included the Windsor Locks site on a 41-city tour in September and October touting its being the first U.S.-based fractional ownership provider to offer the eight-seat Embraer Legacy 450 business jet. (Fractional ownership refers to the practice of companies or individuals purchasing as little as a sixteenth share in an aircraft, its management and pilot services.) Such planes are used for travel to and from cities ranging from White Plains and Boston to Montreal and Chicago, the company said.
However, most companies are looking to keep expenses down and are unlikely to book or buy into private jets, especially when they are billing clients for travel as is the case at Reynolds & Rowena. “We try to do things in as economical a way as possible,” said Gagnon. “But that’s not always so easy to do. With Bradley, there’s nothing direct for us. Stewart never seems to have availability, unless you’re going to Disney. Getting to LaGuardia means dealing with all that construction. Westchester might be more doable, but it’s often triple the price (of other area airports).”
Gioia has gone so far as to fly into Logan, he said — though that too can be complicated. “That’s a nightmare,” he said. “You can’t park anywhere close, you have to take shuttles, and God help you if it snows. You don’t want to be shoveling out your car at 10 at night — which I’ve done.”
“Westchester seems to have very few flights that are direct, making it less compelling as a convenient choice,” said Van Wyck. “While Kennedy and Newark are about the same distance from Fairfield County, both airports always seem to have traffic problems. I have never considered flying out of Bradley as it somehow seems less convenient to travel up to Hartford to catch a flight.”
The Zillion executive said his ideal solution to the situation would be improved train service.
“What would really impact our business positively would be better, faster and cheaper trains,” he said. “We normally have five to seven employees traveling from the Boston area to Fairfield County every week, which is expensive and still relatively slow. I’d argue that Fairfield County needs to improve its rail lines first.”
Other observers take a more tolerant view of the situation. “Since airports are regional assets, every city or county doesn’t need one,” said Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of The Business Council of Fairfield County. “LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, White Plains/Westchester, and Bradley provide robust access to virtually any destination.
“The issues of convenience and total travel time are real for the Fairfield County-based business traveler,” he added, “but the additional time required for getting through airport security since 9/11 is much greater than trip-to-airport time increases due to congestion. Having a local airport — like an expanded Sikorsky in Bridgeport — brings its own issues of congestion, air pollution and noise that few businesses would welcome.”
“I don’t think it really has made a difference to corporations deciding whether or not they’re going to move to or stay in the Fairfield County/Westchester area,” said Robert McKay, president of the Connecticut and Westchester chapter of the National Business Travel Association. “There has been talk before, a lot of legislation and regulations around the Westchester County Airport that they could actually take more flights or run later and all that sort of thing, but just because of the area that it’s in, it’s just not going to happen. I do think there’s always that hope that Westchester will expand to serve a different audience.”
Gioia took a blunter view: “Look, if people gotta fly, they fly. They’ll do it no matter what the obstacles or hassles are.”