There is nothing bustling about Stewart International Airport.
As afternoon arrives at the airport that straddles the Hudson Valley communities of Newburgh and New Windsor in Orange County, N.Y., the main terminal takes on a sleepy lull. But a wake-up call could be rumbling on the horizon.
In a region where air traffic tie-ups are nearly as common as highway gridlock, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey views Stewart as a safety valve, a way of one day relieving the growing pressures on the region's three major airports Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy.
The worst of the problem is still 20 years away when aviation experts predict soaring flight volumes will become too much for the area's largest airports to handle. Already, the region's airspace is considered the busiest in the nation, and Newark is plagued by delays.
Port authority officials are negotiating with National Express Group, the U.S. subsidiary of a British-based transportation services company, for control of a long-term lease that would allow them to operate Stewart. The outcome of those talks could be announced later this week.
For years, the port authority has been clear about its strategy of securing a fourth airport to handle escalating demand and congestion. With no ability to add runways at Newark, JFK or LaGuardia, officials have focused on smaller airports in three states: Atlantic City in southern New Jersey, Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and Stewart in New York.
"We're blessed with a string of pearls," William DeCota, director of the authority's aviation department, said of the regional airports. "This is the one the port authority is exploring because this is the one that's available."
At the start of 2007, Stewart operated 20 daily flights to eight destinations. Last year, 308,583 passengers traveled through Stewart, according to the airport's data. That number could soar to 3 million during the next decade, according to the port authority's projections.
But if the port authority's first step is seizing the opportunity that exists at Stewart, the next challenge will be realizing the potential. That won't be quick or easy. It will take legislation, heavy investment, more airlines offering more destinations and long-term economic development, including such ambitious projects as a high-speed rail connecting the airport with Manhattan.
"The situation at Stewart is this, it's a regional airport asset in its rawest form," DeCota said. "It needs to be milled and mined and developed."
"Stewart has a lot of potential to serve the needs of the mid-Hudson County area," DeCota said. "That's the way you have to look at it. This is not going to be a Kennedy or a Newark airport not in the foreseeable future."
Stewart's biggest asset at least in the eyes of the port authority may be its lengthy runways. At 11,818-feet long, the primary runway is capable of accommodating the largest military planes, such as the C-5 Galaxy, as well as the behemoth of commercial jets, the double-decker styled Airbus A380.
Another bonus: Stewart is located outside the crowded metropolitan airspace, where heavy volume routinely causes flight delays.
Getting to Stewart today isn't easy. It requires driving along a rural, two-lane highway Route 300 past old strip malls and small country businesses. It is a meandering drive through a woodsy, rustic slice of the Hudson Valley, but it isn't exactly the pace for frantic airport-bound traffic. Improvements to provide a faster alternative, such as direct access from I-84 to the airport, are in the works.
Maybe even more essential for transforming Stewart into a bustling alternative airport is a long proposed rail linking Stewart to the existing Metro-North Railroad in Salisbury Mills. Ambitious and expensive, the project would connect Stewart and Manhattan.
"The goal would be to help bring commuters back and forth into the city, but it would also open Stewart up to a flow of price-sensitive passengers from New York and beyond," said Tanya Vanasse, the airport's general manager of marketing.
Airline industry consultant Mike Boyd is dubious. "Don't believe this is some sort of panacea or a major step toward relieving pressure on LaGuardia or Newark," he said. "It's not going to do anything."
"How many people are going to leave Manhattan to fly out of Stewart?" Boyd said.
If Stewart's evolution seems daunting and distant, consider this: Newark airport was considered underutilized during the 1970s. Television and print advertisements promoted it as the region's "best kept secret," DeCota said.
All that changed after People Express, the legendary discount carrier, put the airport on the traveling public's radar screen. Since then, Newark has morphed into the fifth busiest airport in the United States. Continental Airlines built the airport into a bustling hub and other carriers, such as JetBlue Airways, attracted more passengers.
Nearly 18 million passengers passed through the airport during the first six months of 2006, according to the port authority's latest data, up 12.3 percent from the same period of 2005.
Dulles Airport outside was considered a ghost town for years, DeCota said. Now it is "vibrant and booming," he said.
Regional airports such as Stewart Atlantic City is another example are dogged by a double-edge sword sort of problem: In order to attract airlines, the airport needs to show a critical mass of passengers, but in order to draw people, the airport needs to have airlines with flights to a variety of destinations.
Stewart has wrestled with the issue for years, attracting airlines such as Delta, which offered flights to its hub in Atlanta, until it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2005.
American, Northwest and US Airways also offer service to their respective hubs in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Once at the hubs, passengers, of course, can connect to lots of other destinations.
"The issue has never been that airlines didn't think there was viable business here," Vanasse said. What has hurt Stewart's potential, she said, is the "tremendous amount of service" within driving distance.
"Airlines are sophisticated enough to realize people will go to those other airports with little marketing necessary," Vanasse said. Not so for the airlines that begin service from Stewart or any other small airport.
Attracting airline service is a never-ending effort for the regional airport, so what Stewart managed to do in November was considered something of a coup.
The airport landed two leading discount carriers in a single month, AirTran quickly followed by JetBlue Airways. After months of doing business at Westchester County Airport, AirTran, which wanted to capture some of the New York City market, decided to add more flights from Stewart. JetBlue didn't take long to respond.
"JetBlue had expressed interest in Stewart before," Vanasse said. "It's not that they were new faces to us."
But this time around, AirTran raised the stakes. JetBlue announced it would start service to Florida from Stewart 22 days after AirTran's announcement. JetBlue started flying on Dec. 19 in hopes of getting an edge of AirTran, which starts service to Florida and Atlanta later this month.
"We wanted to expand in the New York area," said John Kirby, AirTran's director of strategic planning. "At Newark, there are facilities issues. JFK is prohibitively expensive. When Delta offered Atlanta service from Stewart, we know they carried substantial local traffic. The base of traffic is there. That's why JetBlue jumped in."
While competition drives the airlines, Vanasse knows the presence of the low-cost carriers is vital if Stewart is going to succeed in generating more business. "It truly is the first big break," she said of the recent arrival of AirTran and JetBlue.
Here's where the seesaw nature of small regional airports becomes evident though: Even as Stewart landed popular JetBlue and its less known, low-fare rival AirTran, Allegiant Air pulled out, withdrawing from the fierce wave of Florida-bound competition.
That's part of the reason Vanasse is banking on other things to help propel Stewart's growth. Charter companies bringing groups of Asian, European and Middle Eastern tourists to Kennedy have expressed interest in flying to Stewart. One of the selling points for the popular charter trips is a stop at high-fashion outlet stores at Woodbury Commons, a 20-minute drive from Stewart.
The international charters would also make it possible for the airport to generate cargo business, which is capable of adding both revenue and jobs.
Vanesse also expects a proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration for controlling growing traffic at LaGuardia could be an unintended boon for Stewart. By limiting the number of smaller jets that fly in and out of the airport, major airlines may begin relocating their short-haul regional jet service to Stewart, she said.
But as optimistic as Vanasse might be about Stewart's future, its potential still rests on the wildly cyclical U.S. airline business.
"The airline industry is extremely volatile," Vanasse said. "There are so many things that can impact the business. Stewart's growth may start in 12 months or it may take 24 months."
Or even longer.
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