Port Authority Eyes Stewart as Its Fourth Airport

Port authority officials are negotiating with National Express Group for control of a long-term lease that would allow them to operate Stewart.

"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.

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