Federal aviation officials have approved the blueprint for a major expansion at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport, clearing another hurdle in the lengthy approval process for the $70 million project.
An FAA administrator signed off Wednesday on key components of Tweed’s new master plan, which calls for the airport to grow by lengthening an existing runway to 6,635 feet and constructing a new terminal on the East Haven side of the property.
The decision moves the airport authority one step closer to launching the project, which has sparked both fierce opposition from some neighbors and strong support from city officials in New Haven and backers in the business community.
The FAA’s review focused largely on safety, and its decision signals the agency approves of the general location of facilities planned for the airport, including the new terminal, according to federal records. The FAA must still review other aspects of the proposal, including a forthcoming environmental assessment, which is now getting underway.
Despite those caveats, the FAA decision marks a significant achievement for the airport and signals federal authorities are on board with the expansion, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said.
“What the FAA’s approval means is that the agency has reviewed the master plan and has concluded that the changes requested are logical, that they meet or exceed the FAA standards in terms of safety, and that they would lead to a better operating airport as a result,” he said.
American Airlines pulling out?
The decision marks the second important milestone reached by the Tweed airport authority this week.
On Monday, members of the Finance Committee of New Haven’s Board of Alders also backed the project, sending a proposed long-term lease agreement between the city and the airport authority to the full board for approval.
The project, announced in May, promises to reinvigorate the struggling airport, which relies on subsidies worth several million dollars a year from Connecticut taxpayers and the city of New Haven.
American Airlines, which currently operates the sole commercial flights from Tweed, is scheduled to end service on its New Haven to Philadelphia route after Sept. 30. The airline previously suspended flights from Tweed last year amid a drop in air travel but launched its Philadelphia route after receiving emergency pandemic relief money from the federal government.
Sean Scanlon, the airport’s executive director, said last month that ridership has steadily increased this summer, rising from around 42% of all available airplane seats filled in April to 74% in July.
“Obviously … as the number of vaccinated people goes up, as people feel more comfortable with air travel, our numbers are going up and up and up every month, which we feel really good about,” Scanlon told board members at the time. “And frankly, it happened a lot faster than we thought it would, given where the predictions were at in the industry even a few months ago.”
Responding to questions from CT Public, an American Airlines spokesperson didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind the airline’s potential withdrawal from New Haven this month.
“We don’t have any immediate plans to resume service in New Haven but are always evaluating our network,” the spokesperson, Brian Metham, wrote in an email Tuesday.
Better days ahead?
Still, airport officials have reason to be optimistic about Tweed’s future. Avelo, a new budget airline that caters to leisure travelers, will launch four new routes between New Haven and destinations in Florida in early November. Avelo will provide $1.2 million to help renovate the existing airport terminal to support its operations.
Avports, the private company that manages the airport, will provide an additional $4 million for the project in the form of a forgivable loan. New Haven’s city plan commission signed off on the terminal renovations last month.
Separately, Avports proposes investing as much as $70 million on a major redesign of the airport, including construction of the new terminal and an extension of the existing runway. In exchange, the company is seeking a 43-year lease deal with the airport authority, which would give it more latitude to run the publicly-owned facility.
Backers say the project would bring more commercial flights to Tweed, create thousands of construction and service jobs and eliminate the need for taxpayers to backstop the airport with public money.
But a vocal contingent of residents has raised objections, arguing the project would also bring more noise and pollution. Expanding the airport is also shortsighted because Tweed sits in a flood zone and is likely to see more damaging storms in the future through the effects of climate change, they contend.
Residents have also pressed public officials to divulge more information about the public-private partnership, including specifics about a $5 million community benefits package promised by airport officials.
New Haven’s proposed lease with the airport authority includes broad guidelines for the money but doesn’t delineate how it would be spent, or how much the two communities neighboring the airport would receive.
Scanlon, the airport’s executive director, pledged during a meeting Monday to provide those details before alders give their final blessing to the lease deal.
Opponents have also raised questions about who stands to gain from the new arrangement, which would move the airport closer to a privatized model.
Avports, which has managed Tweed since 1998, is a subsidiary of a hedge fund controlled by banking giant Goldman Sachs. Residents say they worry the company has ulterior motives in proposing the deal, such as expanding freight operations, which could bring more early and late-night air traffic to the city.
Both New Haven’s mayor and the executive director of the airport authority have said in public meetings they have no indication Avports would move in that direction.
But the terms of the company’s proposal remain unclear. The airport authority denied a request made by CT Public under the state’s Freedom of Information Act to release the so-called term sheet that it previously negotiated with Avports, saying the document is a preliminary draft, and therefore “the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
Portions of the term sheet also contain “trade secrets or commercial or financial information given in confidence” and would need to be redacted, according to the authority.
The document spells out in broad strokes the components of a future facility lease between Avports and the airport authority.
Under a May 6 letter of intent signed by the two parties, the airport authority must notify Avports of any FOIA requests it receives seeking records deemed by the company to be confidential and give Avports the opportunity to block the release of such material in court, unless Avports consents to its release or the authority’s lawyers determine it must be disclosed.
The airport authority also agreed to presume all information it receives directly from Avports related to the transaction is exempt from the state’s public disclosure laws, with the exception of information that’s already publicly available, and information the company was already required to disclose under its existing operating agreement.
The authority also agreed to jointly prepare all public communications regarding the project with Avports for a period extending one year after the letter of intent expires.
Changes to Tweed’s board
Other records released by the authority include significant redactions.
For example, entire pages of a slide presentation shown to airport directors earlier this year that describe the future lease and governance structure of the airport were blacked out.
It’s also unclear what role the airport authority and its executive director would play in the future. Language in the proposed lease between New Haven and the airport authority alludes to changes in the authority’s management responsibilities, though airport officials say those changes have yet to be negotiated with Avports.
The composition of the airport’s board of directors is also likely to change. During an interview in August, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said his understanding is that East Haven will have greater representation on the 15-member board in the future, in recognition of the impact the new terminal would have in that community.
However, New Haven would retain a controlling interest in the body, which would shift from having eight members appointed by the mayor of New Haven, five by the mayor of East Haven, and two by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments to eight New Haven appointees and seven East Haven appointees, Elicker said.
The terms of any such changes would be negotiated in the future, he said.
New Haven’s Board of Alders is expected to discuss the lease deal next on Sept. 23.