Last week, the Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority submitted a DeStefano-backed request to the Board of Aldermen for an additional $160,000 to help keep it running this year. The airport, which carries only one commercial airline and generates most of its revenue from private planes, faces a $322,431 budget deficit even with significant subsidies from the federal, state and New Haven government. The requested money, which would be matched by private investment, is therefore crucial to the airport’s continued operation.
The airport authority’s appeal comes on the heels of a New York Times article suggesting that lack of convenient and adequate air service cripples small cities (“Lacking Airlines, Small Cities’ Economies Suffer,” Jan. 10). Proximity to a thriving airport helps cities compete as bases for business or as hosts of events and conventions. Hartford, for instance, benefits from its proximity to Bradley International Airport and is thus better suited to hold conventions than New Haven, although the cities are roughly identical in size.
Tweed-New Haven Airport is owned by the City of New Haven, which is therefore responsible for investing in the airport’s upkeep and upgrades. Unfortunately the Elm City, which has recently had to make significant cuts to social services and had to lay off 35 employees (with more expected soon), is in no position to extend a lifeline to the airport. And since the city is facing tight finances, the aldermen must evaluate the economic benefit of expanding and maintaining Tweed relative to other projects.
Hartford has a sweeter airport deal than New Haven. It receives the benefit of a good airport without paying for it: Unlike Tweed, Bradley is owned and operated by the state, which must therefore pay for the airport’s maintenance and improvements. Making New Haven’s airport a state-run enterprise would lift the financial burden of operation (which right now stands at $500,000 a year but was $900,000 as recently as a few years ago) from the City of New Haven. It would also put the airport in a better bargaining position with its East Haven neighbors, who have waged costly legal battles and prevented changes to lure more airlines. (Most of the airport borders East Haven.) Getting the state to take responsibility for Tweed would not be easy (the state has not been cooperative about funding transportation projects), but bailing it out this year will remove the incentive for state or regional action.
The dire situation depicted in The Times, where cities that have lost air service are hours away by car from the nearest commercial airports, is not entirely applicable to that of New Haven. Bradley is only an hour away, and the New York airports just a little further than that. Furthermore, the article mostly discussed cities that once had significant commercial air traffic; New Haven, in contrast, has always had limited commercial flights — to Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. — most of which ended sometime in the 1990s. New Haven, therefore, should not suffer for its lack of air service as much as cities like Santa Fe, N.M., or San Luis Obispo, Calif.
But New Haven is suffering. While the city’s lost opportunities could be, in theory, corrected with a larger airport, other alternatives, such as correcting the missing transportation link between Hartford and New Haven, would be less costly and would likely be financed by many municipalities, as well as the state. Such a rail link could easily include Bradley, making it more accessible and, in turn, making New Haven a more attractive business center.
Even with increased city funding, it is unlikely that New Haven will become a major commercial airline hub anytime soon. Flights to Philadelphia — the only destination serviced — from Tweed currently cost nearly twice as much as flights from Bradley. And the train is often a cheaper, more pleasant option.
The airport has failed, despite many attempts to attract other airlines, in part due to a small runway that is all-but-untenable for large jets (attempts to clear trees and lengthen the runway have been rebuffed by East Haven residents). And while airlines like JetBlue have created hubs in alternative airports like Long Beach or Westchester County Airport in White Plains, that seems unlikely in New Haven. Westchester and Long Beach both compete with airports, like JFK and LAX, that have reputations for being busy, crowded and altogether unpleasant. Moreover, those cities are widely known for having heavily congested streets and therefore being difficult to travel through. Tweed, on the other hand, mostly competes with Bradley, which, especially if public transportation were available, is not onerous to get to and is neither overly crowded nor unpleasant.
Thus, the aldermen must consider the ramifications of bailing out Tweed. Not only will an expansion stretch the already overextended, probably overtaxed, budget, but it also will be at the expense of innovative transportation projects and social service provisions. It also just looks bad to hand over $160,000 during a season in which a budget crunch has forced the city to rescind its “no-freeze” policy at shelters.
Ideally, New Haven would have an airport like those in Providence or Manchester, N.H., with many airlines and many flights. The city probably does stand to benefit from a thriving airport. But it will take much more than $160,000 and a year to make that happen. And this year $160,000 could go toward far more pressing concerns.
Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.