Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 12, American Airlines announced its decision to withdraw services to Tweed-New Haven Airport, leaving the largest airport in southern Connecticut without commercial service.

Before the pandemic, American operated daily flights from Tweed-New Haven Airport and Philadelphia International, as well as weekly flights to Charlotte Douglas International. This September, after a summer of decreased demand, American Airlines opted to cancel service to Philadelphia but continued with daily flights to Charlotte. In October, American also cancelled services to Charlotte, but said they planned on resuming those flights on Nov. 5.

But on Nov. 12, American Airlines announced it had permanently withdrawn from Tweed, citing economic difficulties and the lack of a congressional stimulus package for the airline industry.

“These flights were initially suspended in October as we waited for [Payroll Support Program] support, but are not financially viable routes for the foreseeable future; thus, we have made the difficult decision to cancel service to these markets indefinitely,” American’s statement reads.

Associate professor of urbanism Elihu Rubin ’99 said that American’s cancellation of services is “bad news” for New Haven.

“The general principle is that the more connectivity we have, the more transportation-rich the environment is, the healthier a city is,” Rubin said. “In positioning New Haven within the hierarchy of medium-sized New England cities, [American’s withdrawal] is a deficit.”

New Haven was not the only city to lose service from American Airlines. In the same press release on Thursday, the airline stated it was ceasing services to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as well as Newburgh, New York.

According to Tweed Executive Director Sean Scanlon, American’s departure was not unexpected.

“This is something, unfortunately, that we’ve been expecting,” Scanlon told the News. “There are significant challenges that the airline industry is facing with their budgets, given people’s aversion to flying for the time being.”

Employees furloughed

American’s withdrawal could have more immediate economic impacts, however, on the employees of the airport, airlines and aircraft-service companies. Tweed Facts is a local publication run by aviation professionals that has monitored the airport’s growth since 2015. One of its editors — who asked not to be named because they are still employed at the airport — said that the pandemic-induced service drop at Tweed has resulted in employee cuts.

“As a result of these cuts, the ground staff at New Haven, including a number of good friends, have all been furloughed,” the editor wrote in an email. “Other airport tenants have been forced to cut back or cease as well, including the TSA, rental cars, concessions, cleaning crew, and others which supported the airline’s continued service. Many have built lives around this airport and its air service, which has now been upended as a result.”

However, it appears that all cutbacks made so far have been furloughs, rather than permanent job losses. Diane Proto, a station manager for Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American, has worked at Tweed since 1981. She told the News that 25 Piedmont employees have been furloughed, but remains “hopeful” that the change is temporary.

Scanlon told the News that American’s departure has not thus far resulted in job losses at the airport. Evan Warren, operations manager at Robinson Aviation –– which provides fueling, hangars and other aviation services for Tweed –– declined to say whether his company is terminating employees after American’s withdrawal.

Some workers may remain employed through non-American related employers. Another Tweed Facts editor, former corporate pilot Devin Tichy, noted that the airport will maintain some level of activity through general aviation traffic, which includes charter, personal, cargo and ambulance service flights.

Plans grounded

This decision deals a major blow to Tweed’s ongoing battle to attract new airlines and routes. According to Tichy, the main obstacle in the airport’s efforts is the length of its main runway, which until recently was limited by state law to 5,600 feet.

“The success and growth of the airport has been limited by one constant factor over the past 50 years,” Tichy said. “Even if an aircraft is capable of operating from 5,600 feet of runway, new airlines aren’t always willing to take that risk for the potential reward.”

The runway length limited the types of planes that could take off and land, and by extension, the number of daily passengers that could pass through Tweed. American previously flew out of Tweed with 76-seat Embraer jets, among the smallest aircraft in its fleet.

However, optimism about Tweed’s expansion prospects swelled in 2019, the state passed H.B. 7143, which overturned previous laws restricting the length of Tweed’s runways to 5,600 feet. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court declined in March to hear a challenge to H.B. 7143. 

Stakeholders in the local economy, including Yale University, Yale New Haven Health and the New Haven Chamber of Commerce, have long supported Tweed’s expansion because of its potential economic benefits. The airport is currently still planning on moving forward with its expansion plan, which will be up for approval in March 2021. A previous master plan, drawn up in 2002, included a proposal to lengthen the runway to 7,200 feet.

The plan has also drawn criticism from residents in the East Shore neighborhood who fear more pollution, environmental degradation and traffic should the runway extension proceed.

Scanlon told the News that the New Haven area is one of the most underserved air markets in the Northeast. The New Haven Independent reported in 2019 that half of New Haven-area air travelers fly through New York City-based airports, while another 38 percent travel to Bradley International Airport in Hartford.

Flights coming back?

Despite the setback to Tweed’s expansion plans, Mayor Justin Elicker’s office projected optimism about the airport’s future prospects in a press release last Thursday.

“Tweed Airport is an asset to the city and today’s decision is really more a corporate decision by American related to the pandemic,” Elicker’s statement reads. “Our economic position is strong and we are confident in our recruitment of new service to serve the market.”

Tichy told the News that plenty of airlines remain interested in Tweed, meaning the airport could resume service in the spring. After the airport won the right to expand its runway, Allegiant Airlines expressed interest in initiating service. A large commuter airline is also looking to restore service to Philadelphia even earlier than the spring, he said.

“I don’t think it’ll take that long for Tweed to regain service,” Tichy said. “As terrible as this is for the airport and its employees, it is temporary.”

Scanlon, who is also a state representative, said he also sees hope on the horizon. He stated he was confident that air service would come back to New Haven in the “near future.” Scanlon added that, though American’s departure was a disappointing setback, Tweed’s victory in the runway expansion case would make the airport more attractive and create more route options for local consumers.

Scanlon’s optimism appears to be supported by economic principles. According to associate professor of economics Kevin Williams, the airline industry as a whole is nimble, meaning flights could be added to Tweed with relative ease in the future, should demand rebound.

Alternative routes

American’s decision will also impact Yale students moving to and from campus in the near future. Students will need to choose other transportation routes, such as flights through Hartford or New York.

Ramsay Goyal ’24, who flew to campus through Tweed from Philadelphia at the beginning of the fall semester, said that he is disappointed at the change.

“There are now fewer options in trying to return home, and none of them are as convenient as Tweed,” Goyal said. “Flying to New Haven in August, it was a very simple airport close to campus, which took a lot of stress out of my travel.”

Tweed-New Haven Airport began flight services in 1931.

Isaac Yu| isaac.yu@yale.edu