With but a few major demands yet unfulfilled, Delta Airlines has come closer to coming to Tweed-New Haven Airport. Now, once again, it seems city officials have a chance to turn our underwhelming little airport into something more substantial, and perhaps make New Haven a more appealing destination along the way. We hope this time, unlike so many times before, the city does not squander the opportunity.

Since Sept. 11 especially, Tweed has been a pretty empty place. Boasting just a tiny runway and a single operating gate, the airport has proven a massive obstacle preventing for many years considerable growth in the city. A national study found New Haven to be the most underserved air market in the country, and a recent state transportation study suggested major improvements to Tweed. The airport is essential for business expansion downtown, but in the last decade the gymnasium-sized airport has resisted plans to lengthen runways and has turned away major airlines. In fact, residents of the quaint East Haven neighborhoods that border our suburban airstrip have been protesting expansion plans as long as lawmakers and businesses have been proposing them.

It is not difficult to see why the prospect of 747s coasting through their backyards is unappealing to those who live in walking distance from Tweed. But until major changes are made to its airport, New Haven will remain a city that can’t quite attract enough visitors and can’t quite make enough money. And certainly the only way the city’s lofty ninth square plan — which calls for the construction of a massive tourist-drawing convention center — will work is if people can actually get to New Haven. Unless they catch one of the puddle-jumpers that fly daily between East Haven and Philadelphia, potential conference attendees will have to fly to Bradley Airport, which welcomed relatively prosperous Southwest Airlines when Tweed turned it away several years ago.

Hartford is a city already two years into a major convention center construction project strikingly similar to the one unveiled here last weekend. There is not much incentive to schedule events 45 minutes south on Interstate 91 when the same facilities are right near the airport.

The Regional Growth Partnership, a sensible local economic development group, is trying to woo Delta by asking local business to commit to flying on the airline next year. Hoping to make a modest $1.9 million annually from three daily flights between New Haven and Cincinnati, Delta officials have said that, granted certain capitulations, the airline would consider flying from Tweed as early as August. That, combined with a long overdue proposal to expand the airport’s runways and add safety zones around the edges, would make for a pretty good first step. Without longer airstrips there will be no new airlines. Without new airlines, there will be no more people coming to New Haven than what Amtrak and Metro North carry already.

There is a famous joke from “The Simpsons” television show, in which admissions officers suggest to Mr. Burns, a miserly son of Eli, that Yale could use an international airport. While that may be ludicrous, it hints at the truth: New Haven, at very least, needs something approaching a national one.