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Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Cruising Altitude

Two Roads Tap Room

Two Roads Tap Room is among several food and drink options Bradley has either added recently or plans to open in the coming year.

It’s no secret that the air-travel industry is a competitive one. But Kevin Dillon said it’s doubly so for the airports themselves.

“We’re competing with many regional airports for passengers, but we’re also competing with every airport in the country for limited assets — meaning aircraft,” he told BusinessWest. “Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

By any standard, Bradley International Airport has been exactly that in recent years, said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which has managed the airport in Windsor Locks since 2013 — during which time it has enjoyed six straight years of passenger growth.

Part of that momentum stems from giving passengers what they need, and that’s more flight destinations. Recently announced non-stop additions include service to Denver, Raleigh-Durham, and Orlando on Frontier Airlines; to Pittsburgh on Via Airlines, and to St. Louis on Southwest Airlines.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes,” Dillon said, adding that the top goal these days is to boost West Coast service, particularly to Seattle, which would allow easy, one-stop access to Asia from Bradley.

“We already have service into Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Seattle would complement those very nicely,” he explained, adding that the CAA is also focused on Phoenix, Austin, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Jacksonville. “As it stands today, we feel we have a very healthy non-stop menu, but we want to expand that.”

Internationally, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with area business and leisure flyers, and the airline recently committed to another four years at Bradley.

“That service has been a success, especially during the spring and summer months, when business travel to Europe is supplemented by more leisure travel to Ireland,” he added. “We’ll be exploring additional trans-Atlantic service, but we also want to be very careful to make sure we’re fully supporting the Aer Lingus service.”

“Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

So, Bradley continues to give flyers what they need in terms of destinations. But just as important is giving them what they want. That’s where customer service comes in — and it’s a much more involved game than it was a few decades ago.

Comfort Zone

When Dillon entered the air-travel world in 1975, he said, operating airports was viewed exclusively as a government function, and airports were largely utilitarian in design. Now, it’s a very competitive business that’s laser-focused on pleasing its customers.

Bradley is doing so in a number of ways, including new eateries, such as recent additions Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Tap Room. “We’re looking to add additional concessions in 2019 — particularly in the concourse that houses United and American. Folks can look forward to some new brands coming in 2019; we’re negotiating the deals right now.

“That nicely complements some improvements made in other areas of the airport,” he went on. “Two Roads and Phillips are doing very well, and so is our club, the Escape Lounge. Black Bear restaurant closed down, and it’s going to be redone and refreshed. A lot of good things are coming to the terminal building.”

On that list is a planned $5 million renovation of all public restrooms in the complex, he added. “Everything we do here in the terminal building, all the improvements we make at Bradley, are with an eye toward improved customer service, whether it’s new concessions or something as routine as adding a new elevator. We’re constantly looking to make someone’s journey through the terminal building better.”

Meanwhile, the CAA recently announced that Travelers Aid International has begun serving Bradley’s passengers with a guest-service volunteer program. Forty-five volunteers currently staff the service — which operates out of the Information Center on the lower level of Terminal A, the baggage-claim level — while Travelers Aid continues to recruit more of them.

Travelers Aid currently operates similar guest-service volunteer programs at four other airports: New York JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan. In addition, it operates the information booth at Washington Union Station. At these five locations, more than 750 Travelers Aid volunteers assisted more than 4.2 million passengers in 2017.

These service-focused improvements have all contributed to Bradley’s continued rise up the annual Condé Nast Traveler poll. The publication’s most recent Readers’ Choice Awards recognized Bradley as the third-best airport in the U.S. Travelers gave the airport high marks for “convenient on-site parking, plentiful charging stations and free wi-fi, decent restaurant options, and an overall relaxed atmosphere.”

airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities

Kevin Dillon says airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities in order to draw business in a competitive market.10

Selling Convenience

Dillon hopes they have similar praise for Bradley’s planned, $210 million ground transportation center, which is the final stages of design and financing. Construction may begin as soon as this year.

When it’s open, passengers will be able to fly into Bradley and connect to the transportation center via a walkway from the terminal. All the rental-car companies serving Bradley will be located there, as well as 830 spaces of public parking.

“We have rental cars scattered all around airport,” Dillon said. “Being able to walk right into the new center to get a car is, by itself, a great customer-service improvement.”

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes.”

The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects New Haven with Springfield. “We feel this is a real opportunity to connect the airport to that rail service,” he added. “We want to have a location within this transportation center where we can process rail and bus passengers.”

Meanwhile, the CAA expects to complete the new airport entrance roadway this summer, he noted.

“That was a safety improvement as well as a capacity improvement, as we look to grow the airport. We want to be sure people can easily access ground transportation, and make sure that driving into airport is just as convenient as the terminal building.”

When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.5 million. But Dillon doesn’t think the airport is close to its potential.

“How big can Bradley Airport get? I do think we can be a 10 million passenger airport,” he told BusinessWest — but only if it continues to drive improvements in what passengers need, and also what they want.

“We know, at the end of the day, that what we’re selling is convenience,” he said. “When you compare Bradley with Logan or the New York airports, what differentiates us is that people look at Bradley as the most convenient option.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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