A REGIONAL INITIATIVE
Massport seeks to turn around Worcester Airport while helping meet future New England demand
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
WORCESTER, MA — In January, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) took over operational control of the Worcester Airport, located 60 miles west of Boston Logan International. The initial goal is to bring the airport's operations budget into the black. Long-term, however, the agency sees Worcester as playing a key role in meeting future air carrier demand throughout a four-state region.
Comments Massport executive director and CEO Virginia Buckingham, "Governor (Paul) Cellucci's main priority is keeping the economic success of the region on track. An important part of that is infrastructure.
"The governor's able to take a statewide view and is able to argue for statewide economic development."
Adds Worcester (pronounced "WOOS-ter") airport director Eric Waldron, A.A.E., "The governor and Ginny Buckingham have taken a very aggressive approach toward regionalization. It's something that you are seeing on a different level happening even in the Midwest — with Cleveland and Akron-Canton and Youngstown. You're starting to see those links."
If Massport's efforts are successful, it will also help offset the large movement of travelers that are now traveling to Manchester, NH, and Providence, RI, to take advantage of service offered by low-fare carriers at the airports there.
Buckingham has been in her current position some seven months and was recommended to it by the Governor, for whom she previously served as chief of staff.
"This is a regional transportation issue; it really is. You saw T.F. Green Airport (Providence) and Manchester begin to make the kind of investment in their facilities to attract new air service, then bring in competition, and improve their access so people can get there faster. And you really saw people voting with their feet.
"In the early ’90s, our stats show that eight out of ten new New England passengers came to Logan. In the last three years, it's completely turned around."
Meanwhile, as neighboring airports have grown in air carrier service, Worcester has declined dramatically — from more than 360,000 passengers per year in the late ’80s to just under 50,000 in 1999.
Says Buckingham, "T.F.Green, Manchester, and Worcester really form a unique regional system. With Logan, we have four airports within a one-hour drive of one another that offer viable service."
According to Waldron, airline passenger forecasts from the Federal Aviation Administration alone justify undertaking a serious growth initiative at Worcester.
"If you segment out New England's share of that forecast," he says, "it's about 23 million additional passengers by 2010. That's the equivalent of one new Logan Airport, 4.5 T.F. Greens at their present rate of passenger handling, 8.2 Manchesters, or 3.7 Bradleys (Hartford).
"Where are you going to find the acreage in proximity to the population base to put in a new airport to meet that demand? Well, the answer is you're probably not going to find a suitable site and, yet, you're going to have demand continue to grow.
"I like the odds of us succeeding."
A 5-YEAR AGREEMENT
Discussions for the current five-year agreement between the city of Worcester and Massport began in late 1998, explains Waldron, under a directive from Governor Cellucci. Less than a year later, an agreement was reached in which Massport would assume operational control of Worcester Airport, which it did officially on January 15. "On January 20th, I became a Massport employee," says Waldron.
"It's almost like a reverse contract operation. In a typical contract operation — and I worked for Lockheed Air Terminal for over five years, a party like Worcester would contract with Massport for all personnel, operating services, etc. In this situation, the parties have agreed that Massport will provide the management expertise and, for the time being, the majority of labor and staff are provided by the city of Worcester. That would change should the agreement evolve into an ownership agreement."
In fact, the ultimate target is for Massport to assume ownership, but that still needs to be negotiated during the 5-year contract interim.
A key component of the agreement calls for Massport to assume $250,000 of the annual $1 million operating deficit Worcester Airport currently has. "In truth, they're contributing much more," says Waldron. In year two, Massport assumes 45 percent of the deficit; 75 percent in year three; and, 100 percent in years four and five.
Asks Waldron, "So, is Massport motivated to make this work? Absolutely."
Waldron moved back to the region for family reasons after serving some 30 years at other airports, including Cleveland and Port Columbus. He says that in addition to offsetting the deficit, Massport brings with it expertise in planning, financing, legal support, and engineering — resources he did not have available to him from the city.
He assumed the Worcester Airport position some 19 months ago, becoming the seventh airport manager here since 1990. "The mayor, the city council, the city manager have all stated publicly that the city did a miserable job of running an airport. They didn't know how to run it, and many would say they didn't want to run it."
Facilitating the transfer of operations, says Waldron, was the fact that Massport and Worcester have worked together in the past, particularly via a technical assistance agreement. "A lot of people at Massport were familiar with the Worcester Airport."
Massport's Buckingham says the primary thing the agency brings to the Worcester Airport is marketing muscle. "To be frank," she says, "we have leverage with major carriers. They're all looking to invest at Logan. However, we're able to say to an American or a Delta, you also have to look regionally. Thus far, the carriers recognize that."
A POTENTIAL OBSTACLE:
Despite the negative passenger growth in recent years, the Worcester Airport is actually in pretty good shape, says Buckingham. The 7,000-ft. primary runway is in good condition, but the 5,000-ft. crosswind needs a total rebuild. The terminal building is modern, and Worcester has a new control tower and upgraded navaids.
Explains Buckingham, "Our challenge is to convince the Worcester area business traveler to use this airport. Of course, you have to have air service in order to get them to come here."
U.S. Airways Express and Delta/ASA currently provide commercial service, and an agreement was expected to be finalized by late April with American Eagle to provide three to four flights per day to New York's JFK.
But the airport, which sits on a bluff overlooking the city, is accessible only by traveling through town and neighborhoods.
Says Waldron, "The issue on ground access is this: Massport has said, if you want it to assume ownership, it needs an access route that gets users from one of the highways in about 12 minutes average time."
Adds Buckingham, "Access is a local decision. We're not taking the lead as to how and where access will be built. That's really for the community, the environmental regulators, and the highway department to decide.
"Our estimates show Worcester can handle 600,000 passengers a year with improved access."