DANBURY Air traffic takes a nose dive
Traffic at some of the state’s general aviation airports —including Danbury and Sikorsky — has fallen at least 30 percent during the last decade as fewer planes take off or come in for a landing.
Industry officials attribute the decline, which picked up after the 2008 recession, to the rising costs of owning a plane and obtaining a pilot’s license.
“Most general aviation airports in the country have experienced a downturn,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority. “Since the recession people haven’t had the discretionary dollars to purchase an airplane or to pay for the time that’s needed to get your license.”
As airports are seeing flight declines ranging from 30 to more than 50 percent, they are looking at ways to specialize their air fields and attract more business.
Unlike commercial airports that offered scheduled flights, general aviation airports don’t have regularly scheduled passenger service and cater to local businesses and aviation enthusiasts.
While Danbury Municipal Airport was the busiest general aviation airport in the state last year — and one of the busiest in New England — with 49,083 operations in 2017, that’s down from 73,609 in 2007. Operations are defined as the number of planes leaving and arriving at an airport, with each arrival and departure counting as a separate operation.
Both Tweed New Haven International Airport, which does carry commercial services, and Hartford-Brainard Airport have seen operations decline by more than 50 percent during the same time period.
Commercial airports have also seen a decline, in part, Dillon said, because they also provide services to the general aviation community and because commercial operators have been moving to larger aircraft that carry more passengers.
While operations are down at Bradley International Airport, for example, the number of passengers has increased over the past five years.
While fewer flights overhead might be comforting news to neighbors near the airports, it’s a growing concern of industry and government officials.
Several airports in the state, including Sikorsky Memorial Airport and the Connecticut Airport Authority, which operates five airports including Waterbury-Oxford, had annual deficits in the millions of dollars.
“One of the problems is that the cost of aviation fuel has gone up exponentially in the past decade,” said Wayne Toher, president of Reliant Air, a charter service based at Danbury Municipal Airport. “It used to cost not much more than car gas at one time and there are a lot more regulations than ever before.”
The price of aviation gasoline has nearly doubled during the past decade alone. The fuel hovered around $2.50 per gallon in 2007 while prices are now about $5.35 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Aviation gas cost as little as $1 per gallon in the 1990s.
The amount of flying time required to obtain a pilot’s license — more than 60 hours — is also a consuming effort, said Michael Safranek, assistant administrator of Danbury’s city-owned airport.
“Aircrafts are evolving and people have to learn a lot more than they used to,” he said. “If someone wants to get their private pilot’s license, it can cost more than $20,000, and that’s a big endeavor financially. Of course, planes that used to cost $20,000 about 30 years ago now cost more than $200,000.”
Safranek said the Danbury airport saw the most operations — in excess of 130,000 annually — during the 1970s and 1980s.
At Waterbury-Oxford Airport, officials recently completed a $32 million upgrade to the runway and several businesses at the field have also invested in their facilities with new hangers and other amenities.
“At Waterbury-Oxford we are targeting corporate growth, due in part to its proximity to New York,” Dillon said.
And while city officials in Bridgeport considered selling Sikorsky, they now intend to keep the airport, which runs an annual deficit of about $500,000. The CAA runs an annual deficit of around $4 million.
The city is drafting a new master plan for Sikorsky.
“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.
David Faile, who chairs Friends of Sikorsky Airport (FOSA), said that things aren’t quite as bleak as they might seem.
“I know that the traffic counts have been down and there was a recession in 2008 and some planes left the airport,” he said. “It’s still a very, very viable business tool and it’s increasing like mad for the business community.”
Faile added there aren’t as many young pilots learning to fly as in years past. FOSA promotes the airport as an economic engine for the region.
Toher said their charter services in Danbury have been growing but they turn down charter requests due to not having an available flight crew. The industry is experiencing a dearth of qualified pilots.
“Our operations are up but we could do more if we could find more pilots,” he said.
Linda Silvestri, who owns two businesses at the airport, including Danbury Aviation, said a longer runway would attract more business from airports such as Westchester County Airport. A plane that could cost as much as $9,000 a month to store at the Westchester airport would cost about $5,000 in Danbury, Safranek said.
During the past decade, Silvestri said the only major airport investment by the city she recalls was the purchase of a new snow plow truck, and for tree removal on adjacent parcels to make the aircraft approaches safer.
Oxford, which has been attracting more business flights, has a a runway that’s nearly 6,000 feet, while Danbury’s longest is about 4,500 feet.
Mayor Mark Boughton agrees that a longer runway would make the airport more popular, but it’s not something he said is in the cards right now.
But unlike most airports, Danbury is self-sufficient and actually provides a surplus to the city of around $100,000 a year. Money that some local business owners say could be reinvested into the facility.
“When deciding about whether to renovate schools or the city’s sewage treatment plant, it really comes down to priorities,” Boughton said. “I agree that a longer runway would increase the viability of the airport, but it’s also a very expensive and controversial project.”
Some at the airport note that recommendations from an airport task force convened five years ago by Boughton have yet to be followed up. Those recommendations included making more city-owned property at the airport available for lease, which would provide more revenue for city coffers and more regional marketing of the airport.
Considering the number of jobs available in aviation, the airport also could be used to train residents for new careers, said James Cordes, chairman for the task force.
“It’s not just about training pilots, but also about engineering and aircraft mechanics,” he said. “Many of the kids entering these professions can come out of school making more than $60,000 a year.”