“We are southern Connecticut’s airport of choice,” proclaimed Tim Larson, executive director of the Tweed New Haven Airport Authority. However, for many years the 394-acre airport that straddles New Haven and East Haven has been an also-ran among the region’s airports, with only a single carrier serving one destination route. But while legislative limitations and drastic airline industry changes have stymied Tweed’s competitive viability, Larson is pointing to a possible new chapter of vibrant activity in the very near future.
For starters, Tweed has snagged its first new route in 11 years. “We picked up American Airlines once a week to Charlotte, North Carolina,” said Larson. “I am very confident that will grow to daily, which opens up a whole new host of opportunities for us. Charlotte is the second largest hub for American.”
The Charlotte route will begin nonstop service on Dec. 22, joining American Eagle’s flights to and from Philadelphia as Tweed’s commercial destinations. Last November, American Eagle upgraded from a 37-seat de Havilland Canada Dash 7 airplane to a Bombardier CRJ-200 50-seat jet. Larson noted that ridership was up 30 percent since the upgrade went into effect.
“Last year, we had 25,000 enplanements,” Larson said. “In airline parlance, you count the same person flying out and back. There were 75,000 total airplane movements between the commercial service and the private side,” he added, referring to the corporate and charter flights that use the airport.
Admittedly, Tweed’s air traffic numbers are on the small side. But at least there are commercial flights — Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford and Groton-New London Airport, which competed for years against Tweed for carriers and riders, no longer offer commercial service. And, in any event, Tweed has a history of attracting and losing carriers.
Opened in 1931 as New Haven Municipal Airport, the first commercial carrier to take off from this location was Li-Con Airways in November 1933 — only to cease operations eight months later. Over the years, the airport — which was renamed for its first manager, John H. Tweed, in 1961 — hosted a number of airlines that have since become extinct, including Allegheny Airlines, NewAir, Pilgrim Airlines, Provincetown-Boston Airlines, Comair and Pan Am Clipper Connection. Delta Connection service between New Haven and Cincinnati ended in 2006, leaving Tweed with only the US Airways (now American Eagle) flights to Philadelphia.
“At one time there 21 legacy carriers in the United States, and now we’re down to five,” Larson said.
But that’s not to say Tweed is an aviation equivalent of a ghost town. Shoreline Aviation, which operates seaplane service out of Manhattan, is headquartered at the airport, while private aircraft use Tweed to ferry people into the New Haven region for business and educational events. “Our corporate aircraft business is pretty significant,” Larson said. “In September, we see kids back to college, and corporate and charter flights are busy around the holidays. Around graduation, you can’t park an airplane around here.”
One problem that has bedeviled Larson is Tweed’s potential. “We are the most underserved area,” he said. “The majority of our ridership is effectively south of Middletown and our reach is primarily over Groton and just into the eastside of Fairfield County. We have large concentrations in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Hampton, Shelton and Trumbull. Most of our passengers are less than 30 minutes from New Haven.”
Tweed is also the only commercial airport along the shoreline — one has to venture to T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island to find a commercial airport adjacent to Interstate 95. Larson said that the region’s other airports are not always the most convenient to access.
“With all due respect to my friends in White Plains, you have to be a Boy Scout to find it,” he said, with a laugh. “And people don’t want to drive to Bradley.”
However, Larson observed, there is one major stumbling block that is preventing Tweed from attracting new airline business: its runway totals 5,600 feet, which is too short for most airlines.
“We go to conferences twice a year and introduce New Haven to every airline imaginable,” he said. “We’ve talked to JetBlue, we’ve talked to Southwest Air, we’ve had conversations with Allegiant. We’ve had conversations with Cape Air about doing seasonal runs. No one ever makes a commitment, but they’ve sort of said, ‘When you have that 6,100 feet of runway, come and visit with us.’ This is the new standard for commercial service. If we want to continue to grow the airport, we would have to obtain 6,000 feet of takeoff space”
Larson has outlined a plan to extend Tweed’s runway by 1,000 feet by paving over its runway safety areas. “We are not expanding the boundaries of the airport,” he said. “This would be on the inside of our fence. It allows for long takeoff distance and is only representative of takeoff and not landing. We feel this gives us more viability in the commercial market but it’s a much safer takeoff with more space on the airport.”
The idea of expanding Tweed’s runway in order to grow its business was embraced by both Democrats and Republicans in the recent gubernatorial primaries, who viewed increased air traffic and its accompanying revenue as a boon for the state. “We don’t have to increase the footprint in the terminal, we’d just have to open up new airline stations there,” Larson said. “We don’t have to expand our parking lot — we have 750 available spaces here, much more than even White Plains.”
In anticipation of the possibility of increased air traffic, the airport has leveraged $60 million in Federal Aviation Administration grant money for noise insulation installation on surrounding residential properties. However, efforts to change state law to allow the expansion of the runway failed in the last legislative session.
“We ran three bills and none of them got carried to a vote,” Larson said. “There seemed to be some confusion with legislative delegation and City Hall on what the priorities might be, so those were not called.”
Larson predicted that legislative approval will occur within a year and he has already identified several markets where he’d like to see Tweed passengers heading.
“Our primary goals here are Washington, D.C., Chicago and Orlando, Florida,” he said. “Before 9/11, we flew to Washington and it was very, very lucrative for us. But they restricted the airspace for smaller regionals and we never got the space back. We would be very interested in Canada: Halifax, Montreal or Toronto because we think there’s some business there.”
Larson also envisioned an increase in passengers from Fairfield County with expanded service.
“Since the Q Bridge has been fixed, it makes it a much easier commute to come east than to battle traffic into New York or White Plains,” he said. “We’d love to attract more people from Fairfield County, but we have to have something to offer them.”