July 1, 2007
By ERIC GERSHON, Courant Staff Writer
In 1966, Bradley Field was renamed Bradley International Airport, a bold nod to its lofty aspirations.
And for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, TWA intermittently offered flights to London, Paris, Rome and elsewhere, with a pit stop in Boston.
But TWA cut the service before long. Since then, most Connecticut residents have hit the highways for Boston, New York and points beyond to catch overseas flights, although connecting at other U.S. airports from Bradley has always been an option.
At 5:25 p.m. today, Bradley and Connecticut head back to the future.
Northwest Airlines Flight 98 - a 160-seat Boeing 757 - is scheduled to depart for Amsterdam, direct and nonstop, with a water-cannon salute. The flight commences Bradley's first-ever daily passenger service overseas, and comes as old-line legacy airlines have been adding more profitable international routes to their schedules.
It's a momentous development for a region with little glamour to spare, and a cadre of official Hartford and Connecticut representatives will be aboard the first flight, including Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, MetroHartford Alliance President R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel and Bradley board of directors Chairman L. Scott Frantz. Over several days in Europe, they and officials from western Massachusetts will try to "put western New England on the map in Europe," Griebel said.
For him and for other local promoters, today's takeoff is a "dream come true," one their predecessors dreamed before TWA launched its overseas service 39 years ago, at the start of July 1968.
But it's a guessing game as to how long this second coming of transatlantic service will last - and whether Northwest or another airline will follow with more flights to Amsterdam or nonstop service to other foreign cities. Even as Connecticut celebrates the new service, Bradley officials acknowledge a wish list - with London and Frankfurt at the top.
Kiran Jain, director of marketing and route development for Bradley, already has set up meetings with "various carriers" to discuss other foreign destinations.
"That is nonstop," she said. She declined to name the carriers or the destinations.
Whether Jain's task becomes easier or harder depends on the outcome of Northwest's Hartford-Amsterdam experiment, she said, and it could take 18 months of solid results before the airline industry believes that real demand for overseas service exists here.
Even Northwest, which emerged from bankruptcy May 31, is hedging its Hartford bet, using a relatively small, single-aisle aircraft on the route and flying just once a day round-trip at the start.
The million-dollar question is, Who will fill these seats day after day?
Since last October, when Northwest announced the flight, the airline, Bradley and chambers of commerce in Hartford and western Massachusetts have worked overdrive to promote it to business and leisure travelers alike - not merely as a link to Amsterdam, but to scores of cities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India that are served from Schiphol Airport.
Specifically, flight promoters have run radio, television and print advertisements in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York and beat the drum at a series of public and private events leading up to the flight. They also approached major local corporations directly to discuss their travel demand and, in some cases, negotiate deals.
"They'd be derelict if they didn't," said Robert W. Mann, a consultant on Long Island who has held positions at American Airlines, Pan Am, TWA and other airlines.
In an age of global business, Hartford's biggest corporations frequently send employees to visit operations and clients overseas. And business-class fares can be expensive enough that each one filled makes up for several empty coach seats.
United Technologies Corp., Connecticut's biggest private-sector employer, will be the flight's major customer by far, a Northwest source said. Farmington's Trumpf Inc., which has a German parent company, and ING, a Dutch company with more than 2,000 employees in Hartford, have said they also expect to use the flight regularly.
UTC and its subsidiaries employ about 26,500 people in Connecticut and 65,000 in Europe. They have operations in more than 400 locations worldwide. The company spends between $165 million and $180 million a year on commercial air travel, according to Scott Gaskill, the director of supply management and general procurement.
UTC would not say how many people it expects to place on the Amsterdam flight in a given time period, but the company has shared its "anticipated" need for service to Europe with Northwest and negotiated discounts, Gaskill said.
And if there was any doubt about UTC's interest in the flight, top executives attended a Northwest reception at Joe Black's in Hartford on Thursday, including Pratt President Stephen Finger and Hamilton Sundstrand President David Hess. Northwest CEO Doug Steenland was also there. The aircraft is powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.
"We are excited to be passengers on that flight every day," Finger said. There's also evidence that leisure travelers have already begun to take notice of the new connection to Europe.
By the time Trish Erdmann and Alan Roberts of Hartford, both 25, became engaged last December, Northwest had announced the Amsterdam flight. And by February, when they picked a wedding date, they had caught wind of the connection, Erdmann said Friday, between phone conversations with wedding vendors.
The couple, who were to be married Saturday at Center Church, will spend most of their honeymoon in France, but they'll bookend their trip with short stays in Amsterdam, traveling between the European cities by train after taking the Northwest flight Monday evening.
"Without the two-hour drive [to New York] and the parking and all that stuff, we said, `Hey, let's go to Amsterdam, a place we'd never been,'" said Erdmann, a high school French teacher.
Northwest is counting on people like Erdmann and Roberts.
Mann, the airline consultant, said airlines once gave a new route about a year to develop. These days, after several tough years, they have less tolerance for risk and a shorter window to succeed, he said.
Northwest has not committed itself to operating the Hartford-Amsterdam route for any defined time period, and executives would not discuss minimum standards for success. They said today's flight is full and advance bookings are better than expected, but would not disclose any data.
And though an estimated 400 to 450 people living in Connecticut or nearby Massachusetts fly overseas daily, according to consultants to Bradley, Northwest is starting service with a 160-seat Boeing 757 - a smaller aircraft than is normally used on trans-Atlantic flights.
Meanwhile, Northwest and its partner, Amsterdam-based KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, plan to add a second daily flight to Amsterdam from Boston later this month. Northwest/KLM also operates flights to Amsterdam from New York's JFK and Newark Liberty in New Jersey.
Northwest entered bankruptcy protection in fall 2005 after struggling with lower-cost competition, high fuel costs and crippling debt loads. It emerged a month ago, having dramatically cut costs - in part through steep employee wage cuts that still rankle workers. It updated its aircraft fleet and expanded overseas service.
Mann said several factors are working in Northwest's favor, including Hartford's base of global corporations, which should supply a steady stream of fliers paying business-class fares; the 50-50 partnership with KLM, which helps defray costs; and the choice of a small aircraft.
"I think the airplane kind of cinches it," he said. "You can make money with that airplane in a very price-sensitive market. In a commercial market like Hartford-Amsterdam and beyond, this is a no-brainer."
Looking ahead, some analysts say legacy carriers such as Northwest that have boosted overseas flights may soon face competition on those routes from discount carriers. What that means for airports such as Bradley remains speculation.
For today, the MetroHartford Alliance, the regional chamber of commerce, is making sure the maiden voyage is packed. The alliance bought 60 tickets for its staff, for other business promoters and for resale to members; all were snapped up.
Beyond its role as a convenience and a tool of economic development, the flight may also offer something harder to define - a new measure of self-respect for the region.
"When you don't have this [overseas flight] and you are isolated, you are constantly torturing yourself that you're that place between Boston and New York, and you keep looking at yourself as a wannabe who can't be," said Wilson Faude, a Hartford native who is director emeritus of the Old State House. "Now all of a sudden, being halfway between Boston and New York is a plus."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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