By Katie DeWitt

Staff reporter

On the heels of a 146 percent increase in airline passengers from 2003 to 2004, Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport recently announced plans for continued expansion.

City officials said they hope to attract more Southern Connecticut residents to the regional airport through a number of upgrades, including an additional US Airways flight and larger aircrafts, federal grant money for marketing and advertising, and the construction of a runway safety area.

Tweed is the closest airport for more people in Connecticut than any other, New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said. He said he hopes to focus marketing efforts on helping Connecticut residents understand how convenient and affordable the airport is.

“Tweed should be the number one option for the majority of people in the state,” Fernandez said. “Our long-term interest is to have a very active airport that caters to the needs and interests of local residents.”

In 2004, Tweed boarded 40,665 passengers. Fernandez said he hopes to gradually increase that number to around 200,000 within the next five years. Currently host to two jet services, US Airways and Delta Connection, the airport aims to attract a third airline within the next year and a fourth within the next two years, Fernandez said.

Final plans will be submitted in March for the construction of runway safety areas, which are expected to provide the foundation for additional take-off distance and would allow airlines to expand service to farther away destinations — critical for attracting new flights and carriers to Tweed.

Airport Authority Administrative Director Susan Godshall said while planes currently can only travel about 700 miles to and from Tweed, she eventually hopes to reach over 1,000 miles and fly to destinations such as Atlanta and Miami.

“By using the full length of the runway and paving the runway safety areas, we hope to reach these cities in the future,” Godshall said. “But to achieve this will be an extensive process that will require extensive review and public input.”

But the airport’s expansion has met with far less enthusiasm from some groups. East Haven residents living near Tweed have voiced concerns about the expansion lowering their property values as well as generating excess noise and pollution. In addition, Tweed’s long-term master plan includes developing a portion of the surrounding wetlands, which has created outcry among environmental activists.

Godshall said she sympathizes with these concerns but also recognizes the importance of expanding the airport to the improvement of the overall economy.

“We are doing out best to advocate a balancing act between economic development and environmental protection,” Godshall said.

To increase public awareness of the airport, Tweed applied for a grant in 2004 and received $250,000 of Air 21 Federal Marketing Grant Money, for a total budget of $350,000 to be spent on marketing and advertisement in 2005.

Airport Authority member Dave Greco, who is in charge of marketing Tweed for the next six months, said this is a tremendous increase from the less than $20,000 allotted to advertisement in previous years. He said he plans to place ads on television, billboards, radio, and in newspapers that target the corporate traveler within a 30 mile radius of the airport.

“I think we have garnered so much support and funding for marketing this year because people are realizing the value of a strong regional airport in the area,” Greco said. “Both the media and the city want to do everything they can to help stimulate the local economy.”

The Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis conducted an exhaustive study in 2002 on the economic impact of Tweed on the New Haven and East Haven areas. Anticipating the potential expansions that have now come into place, the report said the airport would contribute increasingly to the economic vitality of New Haven County.

CCEA Director Fred Carstensen said the expansion of Tweed will have an entirely positive impact on the local economy.

“Access to quality air service is critical to the opacity of a region to sustain and expand its economic base,” Carstensen said. “Clearly improvements at Tweed are going to have an impact on the entire region.”