Bradley International Airport, already showing impressive signs of growth, is set to become a major regional facility that can more fully compete with operations in New York and Boston.
“We believe we can grow to be a 10 million passenger airport over the next few years,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which took over management of the airport in 2013. “And we’re seeing significant, double-digit growth in cargo handling at the airport.”
Having handled nearly 6.7 million passengers last year, a 3.6% increase over 2017, Bradley totaled 2.1 million through April. On the cargo side, the airport dealt with over 295 million pounds of freight and mail last year, up 15.2% from 2017, and has processed nearly 110.7 million pounds through April. Both figures should get a significant boost from summer and holiday volume.
Dillon credited much of the freight increase to Pinnacle Logistics, which ships packages for Amazon. That firm relocated its 149-worker operation at Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport to Bradley last July, in part due to costs. Enplanement cost, the figure airlines pay to airports for rent, fees and other expenses divided by the number of passengers, was $12 in Rhode Island, but is $9 at Bradley. The Windsor Locks airport enplanement expense also beats Boston’s Logan ($14) as well as New York’s LaGuardia (nearly $19) and JFK (nearly $26).
Dillon said Bradley has also seen increased usage by all the major shippers — FedEx, DHL and UPS — thanks in large part to the continued increase in e-commerce.
As such, he said, the airport is excited about the new 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center being built in North Haven, which is on track to open this summer. “The more presence Amazon has in the state, the better for us,” he said. “We’d like Amazon to consider Bradley for its entire Northeast network. They’ve been a great partner, but they play things very close to the vest.”
Also, its $210 million ground transportation center is part of a 20-year, $1.4 billion master plan to accommodate its growing passenger population. The center will provide improved road access to Bradley with roadwork expected to be completed by October.
It will also give passengers direct access to its rental car center, which instead of requiring a bus ride will be across the street from the terminal, something Dillon called “a major customer service improvement.” The center should be completed in about three years, he said.
A $6 million, two-year renovation of its terminal building is underway, which will see renovations to all of its public restrooms and the installation of a new elevator bank.
A new explosive detection system will also eliminate the need for passengers to first check their bags in and then carry them to a TSA screening area. Instead, airline personnel will send baggage to a back-office location for security inspections. Such efforts “will free up space in the terminal lobby and increase passenger flow,” Dillon said.
The airport will also expand its concession offerings, with the CAA announcing on July 11 that it is accepting applications from retail and food vendors looking to lease space in the first of a planned seven new food court spaces. Dillon said plans include a new sit-down restaurant.
The airport is also “focused on extending our route menu,” Dillon said. “It’s very important for us to reach out and get additional nonstop locations. We’re working with a number of new carriers.” Having recently added nonstop service to Raleigh-Durham, Orlando and Pittsburgh, he said, “We feel we can certainly compete with the New York airports and Logan for passengers.”
The enplanement costs will work in the airport’s favor, he said. “The size of the market here is significant, and the cost for airlines to lease space is very, very competitive.”
The top domestic target is Seattle, he said. “We’re focusing on West Coast service,” with Phoenix, Austin, Milwaukee, Jacksonville and Nashville also on Bradley’s wish list.
Last September, Aer Lingus agreed to continue its transatlantic service at the airport, which began in 2016, through September 2022. “They feel the route is extremely strong,” Dillon said. “And we are actively exploring adding other transatlantic carriers where we see a lot of potential.”
Bradley also has its eye on the Caribbean market, with Jamaica topping the list. “The ethnic population that we serve continues to grow,” Dillon said, “and we want to accommodate them wherever we can.”
Another possible change involves renaming Bradley — something the airport has been seriously discussing since the beginning of the year. “As we continue to grow our inbound activity, it’s important to be able to geographically identify ourselves,” Dillon said. “For example, people in Europe are challenged sometimes when it comes to the geography of the United States — understanding ‘Hartford’ can be challenging in and of itself.”
At the same time, he said, “We want to be extremely careful about the legacy of Eugene Bradley,” the 24-year-old pilot who was killed in August 1941 when his aircraft crashed during a training flight at what was then the Windsor Locks Army Air Base. The Bradley name was adopted when the airport segued from being a military base to a commercial airport in 1947.
“We’re reaching out to veterans’ groups to get their sense about a name change,” Dillon said. “And, of course, there are costs associated with that. You have to re-market yourself.” He said he anticipated making a recommendation to the CAA board before the end of the year.
The CAA, which operates five other general aviation airports in the state, including Danielson, Groton-New London, Hartford-Brainard, Waterbury-Oxford and Windham, is also looking to expand. It has been in talks with Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport about taking over its operations. “The feeling is that the activities at both should be better coordinated,” Dillon said. “Whether that means operating as a single entity, or continuing as two separate entities, remains to be seen. We want to make sure that Bradley isn’t negatively impacting Tweed, and vice versa.”
The CAA is also conducting a survey of area businesses to determine interest in restoring commercial passenger service to Groton-New London Airport, something that has not been available since 2004.
“You have the two casinos (Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun) nearby, and major employers like Electric Boat and Pfizer,” Dillon said. “We’re asking companies about their travel budgets and the destinations they travel to. Having that information makes it easier for us to sit with the airlines and talk about it.”
Dillon said he expects the survey to be concluded within 30 days, at which point the decision will be made as to whether to pursue the Groton-New London plan.