Avelo airline's new routes from New Haven to Florida.
Renovation, parking plans for New Haven side of Tweed airport property.

On the heels of an announcement of new flights to four Florida airports, Tweed New Haven Airport unveiled — and sparked hours of climate-change-influenced debate over — plans to add 271 parking spaces and renovate the existing terminal and administrative buildings into separate spaces for departures and arrivals.

Avelo Airlines announced last week that on Nov. 3 it will launch daily nonstop flights to and from Tweed and Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The flights begin an East Coast network for the new airline, which so far has been flying to and from West Coast airports.

The budget airline plans to begin with three new flights a day, claiming it will build up to eight.

To pave the way for those new flights at Tweed, airport officials last week laid out expansion plans during the latest regular monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission. The four hour-plus virtual meeting took place online via Zoom.

At the center of the meeting was a lengthy discussion and debate around a suite of site plan, coastal site plan, flood plain permit, and special permit applications. It ended with a stalemate, with commissioners putting off a vote until another meeting.

All the requests related to an intermediate step in the airport’s long-term, privately funded $70 million expansion plans that should see the lengthening of the main runway and the the construction of a new four-to-six gate terminal and parking garage on the East Haven side of the airport property.

None of that grander vision was up for consideration at the meeting.

Rather, the local land-use applications under review pertained to a first step in that process: an estimated $5 million renovation of the existing “West Terminal” and administration buildings on the New Haven side of the property, and the net addition of 271 new on-site parking spaces atop a secondary runway that is no longer in use.

All to make way for the budget flyer Avelo Airlines, which plans the new Florida flight routes for the three Boeing 737 jets that it intends to base out of Tweed starting in November. Currently, the only commercial operator at Tweed is American Airlines, which flies one plane a day to Philadelphia.

“This is an enabling project to improve service at Tweed,” City Plan Director Aicha Woods said  in support of the West Terminal renovation and parking addition projects. “We want to think about this in terms of regional connectivity. We also want to think about the role in growing jobs and opportunities for New Haven residents, and also opportunities for residents to travel.”

These applications are directly related to Avelo’s planned beginning of service at Tweed on Nov. 3, Airport Manager Jeremy Nielson said. “That’s what’s necessitating the presentation of these various terminal improvements to handle that additional growth that we’re excited for and that we’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.”

The commission heard hours of heated public testimony on either side of the proposals. Critics focused on the environmental impacts of more air service in Morris Cove. Proponents boosted the potential economic benefits of greater connectivity to the rest of the country

The commissioners ultimately decided to continue the public hearing on the matter until Aug. 25.

They scheduled that continued hearing to take place five days before the Board of Alders Finance Committee is slated to host a public hearing of its own on a separate proposed 43-year lease agreement between the city and the airport authority.

That lease extension would allow the authority to hand over many of the financial risks and perks associated with an expanded airport to the Goldman Sachs-owned management company Avports—which has managed Tweed since 1998, and which has promised to foot the costs of the airport’s expansion.

Eight new arrivals/departures per day

A team of project managers, lawyers, engineers, designers, and airport managers kicked off the Tweed section of last week’s meeting by detailing what this planned three-year, $5 million New Haven-side renovation would entail.

Per their presentation and the application materials submitted to the commission in advance of the meeting, the airport updates would include:

• The conversion of the existing main terminal building into a departures building, and the adjacent administrative office building into an arrivals building with a new baggage claim hall for passengers.

• The installation of a modular trailer building alongside the existing passenger terminal-turned-departures building to allow for expanded check-in and security screening operations.

• The net addition of 271 car parking spaces built atop existing airport pavement that was previously used as the now-closed 14/32 runway. After the renovation, the airport is slated to have a new total of 927 on-site parking spaces.

• The creation of a newly paved connector between the runway-turned-parking lot and an existing parking area to the south of the terminal.

• A series of stormwater management improvements, including the dryproofing of the existing terminal and administration buildings and the creation of a new 300,000 gallon-capacity stormwater retention system around half of the new south parking lot.

In describing what he said would be a minimal traffic impact to the neighborhood, airport-hired engineer Don Tone said that Avelo is planning a “scaled implementation of flight programming.”

That means: The new airline won’t start immediately in November with eight flights per day. Rather, it will start with three flights, then eventually increase to five flights, then eventually increase to eight flights.

All the while, the airport authority and airport management company will be evaluating how best to handle the increased traffic through such potential measures as speed humps and increased enforcement and new signage.

The airport will undertake “a measured approach at each stage,” Tone promised.

Climate Change Folly? $ Pit? Biz Travel Panacea?

During the public testimony section of the meeting, 20 people spoke up passionately on either side of the issue.

The public testifiers generally fell into one of two categories: Morris Cove neighbors and environmentalists who slammed the proposed expansion for being financially unrealistic and reckless in the era of climate change. And local and regional business leaders who praised the project for making New Haven that much more accessible to employers and investors.

“Sea levels are rising,” said Lighthouse Road resident Claudia Bosch. “Within 30 years, Tweed is underwater. This is coming, and no tidal gate will help. All coasts across the globe, the water will rise. Can you have a good conscience and approve a project to build in these fragile wetlands?”

Adam Matlock agreed. As confirmed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report, “the increasing severity of climate change means we can’t fully predict what we’re dealing with in 20 years, 10 years, five years.”

While a larger Tweed is touted by supporters as an economic and transportation win for the region, he said, that “win” would come “at an extremely high environmental cost. … These fruits could sour before they are able to be enjoyed by the community.”

Speaking to Tweed’s longer-term expansion plans more broadly, Matlock said, “Signing a 43-year deal when every year brings increasing severity of weather events seems short-sighted.”

City Environmental Advisory Council Chair Laura Cahn raised concerns about how Bridgeport’s Sikorsky Airport also recently announced plans to expand.

“I’m wondering if both airports can be successful,” she said. “Are we putting money into something that’s just going to end in disaster?”

Even with a larger Tweed airport, she said, “New Haven will never be able to compete with a major airport. Maybe we should just have better train service,” particularly to airports that already exist—like Hartford’s Bradley Airport, which is currently inaccessible by train.

BioCT President and CEO Dawn Hocevar, meanwhile, threw her support behind a larger Tweed airport on the grounds that it will be an economic boon, especially for New Haven’s health-tech industry.

“The easier and more convenient we make travel, the more likely companies will want to come and stay in New Haven,” she said. She said that venture capital firms and other investors want to be able to visit start-ups they’re funding. “We need to remove as many obstacles as possible, and improving travel at Tweed airport would be a significant improvement.”

Biorez Founder and CEO Kevin Rocco agreed. He criticized Tweed’s current air service as “unreliable” and “too infrequent.”

He said he and his employees frequently travel through Bradley and New York City airports, but “these other airport options are more than 50 miles away and add hours of unnecessary travel time.” All of the added time in cars and stuck in traffic to reach further airports is “more than a minor inconvenience.”

HealthVenture Co-Founder and CFO Donna Lecky said she and her business partner are currently reconsidering their decision to have their headquarters in New Haven, largely because of the lack of reliable air service.

“New Haven has a unique opportunity to be an innovative center for excellence,” she said, “one where businesses can thrive, given that access into and out of the city is available.”

This story was first published Aug. 19, 2021, by the New Haven Independent.