Last October, Sikorsky Memorial Airport garnered media attention with the dedication of a rebuilt runway that had been closed for two years, leaving the airport with only one operating runway. Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim arrived at the dedication ceremony in a private jet and praised the upgrades as a start for better things to come.
Ganim said the improvements, which included a 300-foot arresting system, new runway lighting and new security fence, were “sorely needed” and moved the airport “forward for decades to come.”
Forward movement is not commonplace at Sikorsky, which is owned by the city of Bridgeport but located in the neighboring town of Stratford. The runway upgrade was 20 years in the making. A 1994 crash that killed eight people highlighted the need for the safety arresting system at the end of the runway but funding was not available until a few years ago.
Forward movement in commercial aviation technology killed Sikorsky’s viability as a passenger-flight destination in the late 1990s. The shift from turboprop engines to turbofan-powered regional jets left its runways too short to accommodate the newer passenger planes.
The city-owned airport now operates at an annual deficit of $500,000. Last fall, the Ganim administration began negotiations with the Connecticut Airport Authority over the sale of the money-losing facility.
That effort came with a sense of déjà vu: in the early 1990s, when Ganim was first elected mayor, he was in talks with then-Governor Lowell Weicker over the sale of the airport to the state. Weicker opted instead to acquire Beardsley Park
and its zoo.
Still, the airport is anything but stagnant. An estimated 200 people work for the various companies headquartered there and corporate and private aviation has replaced passenger flights. “At last count, there were six large corporate jets and about 25 smaller corporate jets, along with 100 airplanes for individual use,” said David Faile, president of Friends of Sikorsky Airport, an airport user group.
Faile, who is based at Sikorsky in his work as a search and rescue helicopter pilot for the Stratford Police Department, noted that a prominent former corporate resident of Fairfield County publicly complained about local transportation hiccups was particularly fond of the airport. “General Electric used to be in and out of the airport five to six times a day with their corporate jets when they were based around here,” he said.
Michelle Muoio, who was hired in early July as airport manager, said Sikorsky saw 22,000 flights last year. She said Sikorsky’s function in “connecting different businesses with different parts of the country” earned it a listing as an airport of national importance in the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems.
But Sikorsky’s near-term future remains unclear.
John Ricci, Bridgeport director of public facilities, acknowledged that the city’s negotiations with the Connecticut Airport Authority face stumbling points – including the half-million-dollar operating deficit and the state’s balking at paying for maintenance and improvements to access roads, parking lots and other landside property — that need to be overcome
“The CAA is very much interested in taking this on and we are very much interested in having them take this on,” he said. “We are now working out
the details. We have two sides that are willing but not yet able.”
Muoio, who previously managed Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.’s flight operations section before taking the airport manager job, said she is preparing to launch an airport master-plan study of the facility’s role in the local economy and how aviation industry trends would impact its long-term operations. “We’ve had some different costs going in and different costs going out, so I am trying to rein that in and try to figure out where we can do things better,” she said.
The airport might also be part of the ongoing race for Connecticut’s next governor. Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, who is seeking the Republican Party nomination, is proposing the return of passenger flights to Sikorsky.
“We have an international airport in Connecticut, but it’s out of the way — it serves a lot of southern Massachusetts,” said Herbst, referring to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. “I want to get another commercial airport in Connecticut and I think Sikorsky needs to handle more commercial air traffic.”
Herbst envisioned an expanded Sikorsky as a rival to Westchester County Airport for Fairfield County travelers, and he was not concerned that the Stratford venue would be too small to achieve that goal.
“I just went into San Diego Airport,” he said. “The length of their runway is not that much longer than the length of Sikorsky’s. It is right in the middle of downtown — they figured out ways to mitigate noise impact. And it works — the city is thriving. I would want to follow the San Diego model for Sikorsky.”
But Herbst’s proposal to expand the city’s airport “is pretty much off the table,” Ricci said. “There are too many environmental concerns, not to mention questions of land acquisition.”
Ricci predicted that Sikorsky will require “three to five years to break even.” He said that Sikorsky’s location gives it the potential to attract more corporate aviation activity away from Westchester County Airport and the Long Island airports.
“The airport is still viable and corporate general aviation is a big market,” Ricci said. “We’re poised to start marketing ourselves and get into the 21st century.”