Dan Haar: Tweed airport launching massive expansion, privately financed

Photo of Dan Haar
Artists renderings show concepts of what the new terminal at Tweed New Haven Regional Airport could look like in the project proposed by Avports and the Tweed authority on May 6, 2021. The 74,000-square-foot terminal would be located on the East Haven side of the airport and the old terminal on the New Haven side would be retired. Target for completion was announced as the end of 2023.

Artists renderings show concepts of what the new terminal at Tweed New Haven Regional Airport could look like in the project proposed by Avports and the Tweed authority on May 6, 2021. The 74,000-square-foot terminal would be located on the East Haven side of the airport and the old terminal on the New Haven side would be retired. Target for completion was announced as the end of 2023.

Courtesy of Avports

Two decades of infighting and dashed hopes for breakout growth at Tweed New Haven Regional Airport could come to a sudden end Thursday morning with the landing of a plan to remake the old place into a true regional asset — without a dime of state or municipal money.

Avports, the management company that has run operations at Tweed for years, has agreed to spend more than $70 million of its own money over the next two years, starting with a new, 74,000-square-foot terminal on the East Haven side of the airfield. Traffic would pass through East Haven to reach Interstate-95.

At the same time, aiming to finish by the end of 2023, Avports will end a long, tortuous controversy by joining with the Federal Aviation Administration to lengthen the runway for 737 jets to take off and land.

And the privately owned company will bring in a new airline immediately; literally a new airline, which had its maiden flight on April 28 in California, and will base three 737 jetliners at Tweed. Avelo Airlines will launch three flights a day at Tweed. It will not name the destinations Thursday but Florida and hubs such as Charlotte and Chicago are always prime targets.

Avelo plans a sharp increase when the expansion is done, perhaps eight flights a day. And other airlines are showing interest in a Tweed with a full-length runway.

Avelo flights are expected to start this summer and the airline will invest $60 million in its new east coast hub, with 100 people at Tweed. That alone stands as a milestone.

That will quadruple the meager one flight per day by American Airlines from Tweed to Philadelphia on a smaller aircraft.

The Tweed New Haven Airport Authority will unveil the Avports-Avelo plan publicly at 10:30 a.m. in the Tweed terminal, though a formal deal is not yet signed. When done, the airport will have the capacity for 500,000 to 750,000 passenger departures a year.

That’s about one-fifth the size of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks and is far smaller than the 2 million departing passengers Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport saw before the pandemic.

Still, it’s several times larger than Tweed’s peak of the early 1990s, when several airlines roamed the taxiways.

It’s a risk for Tweed to basically lease itself whole to Avports for 43 years, an exceedingly rare arrangement in aviation in which the public owner gives up control. And it’s a risk for Avports and Avelo, both headed by CEOs with blue-chip pedigrees in the aviation business, if Connecticut customers don’t take to the change.

Scanlon’s intimate conversations

Highlights of the deal

Management firm Avports builds a new terminal on the East Haven side of Tweed

Startup airline Avelo uses Tweed at its East Coast base, with three flights starting this summer and more after the terminal and runway projects

State money and legislative approval are not needed

Avports pays local share of cost to expand runway

Avelo will employ 100 and Avports 60 to 70 at Tweed

Entire airport would revert to the ownership and control of the Tweed authority after 43 years

Is this, at long last, the realization of an airport that the 1 million people in Greater New Haven and southern Connecticut can call their own? To a point, yes, within the limits of a terminal that has to send passengers though local neighborhoods to reach a highway.

Aside from being home to Yale University and a decent sized biomedical and health sector, New Haven is now the largest U.S. metro area without a robust airport.

“What we see here is a catchment area that is under-served,” said Jorge Roberts, an airport industry veteran who holds a Harvard MBA and joined Avports as CEO two years ago, in an interview this week. “What is it going to need? Infrastructure to accommodate those passengers.”

Sounds simple enough. Clearly, Connecticut’s economy needs a vibrant airport on its shoreline if the state is to have any chance of 21st century growth. Just as clearly, 150 neighbors who all bought houses next to an airport can’t be allowed to halt progress for the whole state — and in fact, the authority has worked hard to satisfy their concerns.

Sean Scanlon, the authority’s executive director and a fast rising, young Democratic state Representative from Guilford, met with neighbors immediately after starting the job 18 months ago — when the authority rolled out its latest master plan.

“I had a lot of those intimate, one-on-one conversations and I learned a lot about what people were looking for,” Scanlon said, talking about noise reduction, curtailed hours for some loud non-commercial aircraft, traffic measures and extensive soundproofing of houses.

Scanlon believes the vocal opponents are not the majority.

The goal: A sustainable HVN

So, why couldn’t the state and the authority get this done by themselves with public money, lo these last two decades? That’s what just about every region in the country does and that’s how Bradley International Airport operates, under the Connecticut Airport Authority.

The answer is not incompetence. It’s fractured Connecticut politics, with East Haven, New Haven, Bradley, the New Haven metro region, Fairfield County and the state as a whole all having competing interests.

And speaking of Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, the “competition” that Gov. Ned Lamont set up in 2019 to pick the best shoreline airport for expansion is now over. The private market has spoken and Sikorsky — which has better highway access but a hemmed-in, too-short runway — is welcome to seek its own investors. That will not happen.

“We have been a committed partner to the authority through the ups and downs of this airport,” Roberts, the Avports CEO, said. “We believe in the future of this airport and the positive economic impact it can have to the surrounding community.

Avports, which is owned by an affiliate of Goldman Sachs, manages several regional airports in the Northeast including Westchester County Airport, which could lose some passengers to an enlarged Tweed, or as it will be marketed by its call letters, “HVN.”

“We are committed to making this airport both financially and environmentally sustainable,” Roberts said, noting that the new terminal will be carbon neutral — an odd goal, it strikes me, for an enterprise that burns fossil fuel at its core, bot laudable nonetheless.

The financial deal will mean the end of subsidies from the state and the city of New Haven that now total $1.8 million a year, and Avports said it will spend well over $100 million during the four decades — including $4 million to fix up the old terminal just for the next couple of years.

The Tweed authority would regain control of all assets after 43 years.

End of a runway ban

Gov. Ned Lamont and the mayors of both New Haven and East Haven, among other politicos, are set to attend the morning announcement — though, to be clear, the authority can do this without the legislature or governor lifting a finger. I’m sure Lamont appreciates that and can sip orange juice in the terminal knowing he’s just there to cheer for the cause.

That’s no small feat considering the state banned the crucial runway expansion with an act of the legislature until a federal appeals court tossed that ban in 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Connecticut Attorney General William Tong’s last gasp attempt to keep the ban at the peak of the coronavirus crisis last year.

The time is right for all of this. American Airlines, like all the bigs, slashed service to smaller airports during and even before the pandemic. Now, with the public flying again there’s a scramble among upstart airlines to fill the gaps.

And suddenly, Connecticut is looking up for the first time in the same two decades that Tweed has languished.

Can we just please get those water fountains that can fill up drink containers?

dhaar@hearstmediact.com