Last month, all eyes in Washington were on the White House Coronavirus Task Force and its daily updates on the COVID-19. However, there was another story from the nation’s capital that nearly got overlooked: On March 23, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Connecticut Attorney General William Tong’s petition to hear the case Tong v. Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority. In its action, the high court paved the way to bring about a potentially dramatic change to Connecticut’s air travel environment.
For many years, Connecticut’s shoreline had three airports offering commercial flights: Tweed, Groton-New London Airport and Sikorsky Memorial Airport, which is owned by the city of Bridgeport and based in Stratford. Sikorsky stopped offering commercial flights in 1999 and Groton-New London Airport ceased its commercial flight offerings in 2004.
But Tweed’s commercial potential became limited due to a 2009 state statute limiting its runway length to 5,600 feet. Currently, the only commercial routes involve American Airlines’ three flights a day to Philadelphia and one flight on Saturdays to Charlotte, North Carolina.
The airport repeatedly tried to seek legislative approval to expand the length to at least 6,000 feet in order to attract more carriers that require a longer runway for their airplanes’ takeoffs and landings. But when legislative support failed to materialize, the airport took its case to the courts.
Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a 23-page decision that voided the 2009 statute and overturned a 2017 lower court ruling against the airport, acknowledging that Tweed’s runway is “one of the shortest commercial airport runways in the country” and determining that the final determination on its runway length lies with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and not the state.
In December, Tong filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling and determine whether the airport can sue the state under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. Tong also sought clarification on whether the FAA can preempt state law regarding the airport’s runway length.
“We believe both these issues are of national, state and local significance and merit Supreme Court review,” Tong said at the time of his petition filing.
While the Supreme Court’s decision allows the appeals court ruling to stand, that may not be the end of the story. State Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-Guilford, Branford), who serves as Tweed’s executive director, warned that more litigation to block the runway expansion was possible.
“It is too early to know if there will be additional legal challenges,” he said. “We certainly hope there will not be – this was a big victory for us.”
However, the court victory does not mean the airport can begin work on the runway expansion. Instead, its focus is on completing a federally mandated study.
“Every 10 years, every airport does an FAA master plan study that is a road map of where the airports want to go,” he continued. “We are now proceeding along the master plan process that began in September 2019 and runs through March 2021.”
The master plan now in progress will examine the economic, social and environmental impacts surrounding the airport, with a new focus on what increased air traffic will mean to the site and the surrounding communities. Scanlon noted that if the FAA approves the master plan after it is submitted next March, the airport will need to get local zoning permission to begin the expansion project. Since the expansion would occur within the existing airport territory and not require encroachment into other properties, work could be completed by either the summer or fall of next year.
Despite the extended timeline and the lack of certainty if new legal delays could arise, Scanlon said the airline industry is eager for a new destination along the Connecticut shoreline.
“My phone has been ringing from carriers that want to come to New Haven,” he said. The governor said he wants a southern Connecticut airport. Groton has never been in the mix and Sikorsky does not have a permit to operate commercial flights, nor do they have a terminal. We have a terminal and commercial flights.”
Scanlon noted the irony that Tweed’s potential for growth is taking place at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on airlines and airports. But he expected the current crisis to have no impact on Tweed’s future.
“The pandemic will not last forever and people will use airplanes at some point this year,” he said.