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Sikorsky’s future might take off

August 29, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — This week American Airlines announced weekly, non-stop commercial passenger service from Tweed New Haven Airport to the plane operator’s second-largest hub, Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.

The next 18 months will help determine if Bridgeport-owned, Stratford-based Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport could ever celebrate similar aeronautic big news. The city is drafting a new master plan for Sikorsky — the first since the mid-1990s.

“Whether or not we bring back scheduled commercial service, that’s something that definitely would be looked at,” said Michelle Muoio, who just celebrated her one year anniversary as airport manager. “It’s a very comprehensive study that looks at the physical, business opportunities and the financial, with public involvement (from) tenants and (the) local community.”

The master planning process, funded largely by the Federal Aviation Administration, also marks a change in how Mayor Joe Ganim’s two-and-a-half year old administration has approached Sikorsky. While campaigning in 2015, Ganim floated the idea of a selling Sikorsky and getting it off of financially challenged Bridgeport’s books. The airport has a $500,000 operating deficit.

“As of now we’re moving forward with the assumption the city will continue to own and operate the airport,” said Dan Roach, a mayoral aide. Roach had been working over the last few years to get the Connecticut Airport Authority, which operates several state-owned airports, including Bradley International in Windsor Locks, to buy Sikorsky.

“We did run into some issues with identifying funds that the state would use to compensate us for the airport,” Roach said.

He said a deal with the state is “not off the table” but acknowledged the Ganim administration is more open to keeping Sikorsky: “There’s some potential there that we weren’t fully aware of a couple years ago.”

Specifically, Roach said, “I’ve been approached by two different groups in the aviation business expressing interest in a long-term lease.” He and Muoio declined to provide additional details.

But, Muoio emphasized, “Nobody is going to build new airports any time soon, so just in general airports are an asset.”

While it has been decades since Sikorsky hosted commercial passenger service, and, in fact, the old passenger terminal was torn down, the airport is frequently used for corporate and charter flights.

The short runways are still a hurdle when it comes to luring back commercial passenger airlines. But Muoio and Roach said the master plan will determine whether technological advances open up Sikorsky to new possibilities.

“That’s a big piece of the study -- forecast and demand analysis,” Muoio said. “What type of operators are out there, who is interested and compare that with what you can actually support at the airport.”

Air traffic control

The master plan effort also includes an updated study of noise and noise management at Sikorsky. That is important given the topic of increased airplane traffic has not, historically, been popular with some residents of the nearby Lordship section of Stratford.

“When you’re talking about technology, a big word is ‘quieter’,” Roach said. “If we’re looking to move forward with more operations out of the airport, it’s not going to mean it’s a noisier airport.”

The FAA recently provided $450,000 for the master plan and $170,435 for the noise study. Bridgeport is chipping in $53,632, and the airport $51,822 out of its budget.

Roach admitted the next challenge will be funding any recommended improvements to runways or other infrastructure: “We are trying to avoid using any city money and are in the process of attempting to acquire government and other funds.”

Sikorsky could have a friend in gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont. The Democrat, in response to Tuesday’s news about American Airlines and Tweed, Tweeted: “Rebuilding and expanding ... transportation infrastructure will be a top priority in my administration. Airports, roads, and rail put the ‘connect’ in Connecticut, attracting jobs and expanding opportunities for all.”

David Faile, president of the Friends of Sikorsky Airport, hopes to be involved in the master plan. He agreed with the premise that aeronautic advancements have compensated for the facility’s shortcomings: “The corporate aircraft flying in and out are bigger than we’ve ever had, quieter than we’ve ever had and use less runway.”

But, Faile said, commercial passenger flights will need a terminal and he is not sure where that would be rebuilt: “As soon as you have an airline service you have the Transportation Security Administration and all the security requirements.”

Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick, who took office in December, has a seat on the Sikorsky Airport Commission mainly dominated by members from Bridgeport. She noted how Stratford receives property taxes from development at the facility and the airport’s proximity to the vacant army engine plant next door that her town hopes to revitalize.

“The airport is an asset to the region and state, in my opinion,” Hoydick said. But, she added, when it comes to changes at the airport, “We would have to have all the facts and presentations so the community at large can be involved in the discussion.”

Muoio said a goal of the master planning process is ensuring “how we can be as best a neighbor as we possibly can be.”

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