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Let Bradley Airport Stretch Wings

Bradley's Business Operations Need More Flexibility Than DOT Allows

Tom Condon

December 06, 2009

Bradley International Airport is one of few airports in the country run by a state Department of Transportation. Most are run by independent, self-funded airport authorities or boards. There's a reason for that. Two examples:A few years ago the Bradley board of directors, a mostly advisory body, identified candidates for airport manager. The board's No.1 choice was from Colorado. He agreed to take the job if the state would pay to move his family here.

The state said no. The candidate responded by turning down the job. Asked to explain this penny-wise, pound-foolish decision, state officials said they don't pay moving expenses. Exactly. The other guys do.

Here's one from last summer. Delta Airlines went to the state with an offer to start a flight from Hartford to Paris if Bradley would indemnify the airline against losing money for two years. The revenue guarantee reportedly was for up to $6 million for the two-year period. If the flight established itself after two years, the "revenue guarantee" would be lifted.

The DOT turned it down. Why? DOT Commissioner Joseph Marie said Thursday that he (and the governor's office) felt that instead of accepting an unsolicited offer, the more prudent path was to determine what kind of service the state wanted from major European hubs and then allow all carriers to vie for it. He also said a potential exposure of millions of dollars was unwise in a difficult budget year.

Bureaucracies can always defend not taking a risk, and can always authorize another study. Sometimes they are right. And Marie is doing a good job in other areas at the department.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained. So what if Delta initiated the contact? If the Paris flight makes sense — and I think it does — an entrepreneurial airport management would have rallied business support and found a way to make it happen.

Remember the global economy? France is Connecticut's second largest trade partner, second only to Canada, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development. In 2008, the state exported more than $1.7 billion worth of commodities to France. Also, the state office of the U.S. Department of Commerce is trying to facilitate more business for state companies with NATO. When we add the tourists who want to stroll down the Champs-Élysées and visit The Louvre, the flight seems like a good idea and a minimal risk.

Hartford had a daily nonstop flight to the Netherlands from July 2007 to October 2008. It was doing pretty well until fuel prices skyrocketed and the economy tanked. Delta/Northwest wanted to bring it back this year, until worsening economic conditions intervened.

Amsterdam is the fourth most popular European destination for passengers in Bradley's service area. Paris is second, behind London. The Greater Hartford business community supported the Amsterdam flight; a check with business leaders suggests there would have been much more support for the Paris flight. Someone at least should have asked.

Pittsburgh International Airport, a facility slightly busier than Bradley, was offered a similar deal by Delta, for a revenue guarantee of $9 million over two years, and took it. The airport, run by an airport authority, got the state to pledge half of the guarantee, and the business community, via the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, to stand the other half.

The guarantee, or some percentage of it, must be paid if the route doesn't meet certain passenger thresholds. The flight began in June, so the reckoning comes in June 2011. At this point, it's not clear whether they will have to pay on the guarantee. Ticket sales are running ahead of projections, but ticket prices are lower than they were in 2008, said Ken Zapinski, senior vice president for transportation and infrastructure for the Allegheny Conference.

"But even if we have to pay some money, that doesn't mean it was a bad investment. We have the flight," he said.

The gist of what they are doing may be unfamiliar to many Connecticut residents. It is called "economic development."

I'm not suggesting the state sell Bradley, or that the DOT give up control of "air side" operations, which the department does as well as anyone. I am saying that the marketing, promotion and business development at the airport ought to be run by a body with the flexibility and autonomy to compete on the national and international stage.

This isn't a strikingly original insight on my part. Everyone who's studied the airport in the past dozen years — two major international consultants, business groups, the legislature — has reached the same conclusion. One option would be to create an airport authority, another would be to enhance the authority of the existing board of directors: "give it enough independence to reach its potential," said state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a pilot and former head of the Bradley board.

A bill that would have increased the board's authority in key areas such as hiring, salaries and contracting passed the Senate last year but was never called in the House, after the Rell administration signaled its opposition. The legislature should give the governor the opportunity to change her mind. Otherwise, to distort a famous movie line, we'll never have Paris.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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