Delta Airlines signed a letter of intent Monday to begin service at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport as soon as this April. The service would include nonstop flights from to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the second largest hub for Delta.

There has been no official deal with the airline yet, but Airport Manager Rick Lamport said the letter implies Delta will begin service once a $1.9 million revenue guarantee is put together. Under the agreement, city businesses and institutions must agree to share in any operating losses Delta would incur in its first year of service.

“They agreed that there is a market to serve, and they want to serve us,” Lamport said of Delta.

Bruce Alexander, vice president of New Haven Office of State and Affairs, who is leading the fundraising process, said $1.2 million of the $1.9 million needed has already been secured from New Haven organizations including Yale University, New Haven Savings Bank, the Knights of Columbus and the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.

Lamport, who said he has been trying to convince Delta to come to Tweed for the past four years, said the letter of intent will help encourage businesses to contribute to the guarantee.

“Delta had to confirm that they were going to start service — saying they absolutely will be there,” Lamport said.

Lamport said New Haven is currently the second most underserved market in the airline industry. He cited a recent air service development study that reported in 2000 that the greater New Haven area generates 11.3 million airline passengers.

Despite the large demand, Lamport said new markets generally take a while to make a profit.

“We need air service here,” he said. “But it will take a while for people to turn around and start noticing that.”

Alexander said an airport is a vital asset to the economic vitality of any city and the expansion of airline service to Tweed would greatly benefit New Haven.

“An airport is part of a strong transportation infrastructure — it supports economic development and in turn supplies jobs and a strong tax base,” Alexander said.

Yale Travel Services Manager Darlene Corgan said the addition of service to Cincinnati would benefit the University both in terms of business and student travel. Because Tweed is only a 10-minute drive from Yale, she said it would be cheaper and more convenient for members of the Yale community to fly into New Haven.

And after recent campaigns by United Airways to offer more competitive fairs at Tweed, Corgan said Yale Travel Services has seen an increase in travel through the airport.

Corgan said with new service to Cincinnati, Delta would open up a lot of travel to the West Coast and Florida. But she said what they would really like is to have direct service from New Haven to Chicago and Washington, D.C., two of the most popular transportation hubs for the Yale community.

“I think the addition of Delta would be a great complement with United Airways,” Corgan said.

United Airways Express is the only airline that currently serves Tweed Airport, with flights to only one destination — Philadelphia International Airport.

Lamport said that in addition to Delta, Independence Air has also recognized the market potential in New Haven and has expressed interest in coming to Tweed. The airline, which is affiliated with Atlantic Coast Airlines, would provide service to Washington, D.C. By fall 2004, Tweed could potentially have three airlines, he said.

While Tweed currently offers flights on prop planes, Delta would provide the first jet service out of the airport since US Airways left in 1996. Recognizing the airport’s potential for economic stimulus, the Board of Aldermen is currently deliberating a $900,000 budget allocation to the airport.

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