Surveys Won't Save Worcester Airport

Few enterprises, if any, have been more frequently and more extensively surveyed than Worcester Regional Airport.

The bulk of the studies were funded through government grants and conducted by teams of private consultants. Most have been forgotten, but some are still around. Even though I have cardboard boxes full of reports, it's hard to say if any of them made a difference. The airport's decline seems to have been in proportion with the growing volume of surveys.

The federally funded New England Regional Airport System Plan survey of 10 airports, including Worcester's, recently has been completed. Its purpose was to estimate the region's air transportation needs, assess aviation trends and review policies and actions necessary to ensure sufficient airport capacity through 2020.

A $399,450 master plan, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, is nearing completion. It has been conducted by Jacobs Consultancy of Boston, formerly Leigh Fisher Associates, selected through a lengthy bidding process. The Massachusetts Port Authority, in collaboration with the city, has been managing the program. Massport has been operating the local airport since 2000. The Master Plan is intended to serve as a "strategic road map" to help guide the planning and development of the 1,300-acre airport property.

In addition, Worcester has signed, and renewed, a contract with Infrastructure Management Group Inc. of Bethesda, a politically connected firm specializing in airport-related issues. The purpose of retaining an outside consultant was to provide the city with independent expertise, assist with the other surveys, consider contingencies for the airport after the current operating agreement with Massport expires, and to help recruit new airlines.

The first $99,750 for the IMG contract came from the city manager's budget. A subsequent $53,640 marketing contract was funded through a federal grant and some city money. Subsequent contract "amendments" - costing $31,850 and $24,860 in city money - enabled IMG to hire Aviation Constructors Inc. to provide analysis requested by an airline, and to help the city manager negotiate a new or extended operating agreement with Massport. In all, thus far IMG was contracted for $265,740, of which $186,260 is city money. Now there is another amendment to pay IMG up to $70,000 for more technical assistance through a subcontractor.

Worcester received a $442,615 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to market the regional airport and to attract passenger airlines. While it is hard to sort out how the DOT money or the funds allocated for consultants, is being spent, this much is clear: No new commercial air service has resulted yet from any of those endeavors.

Numerous working sessions and interim reports have ensued from recent surveys. A series of meetings of the Master Plan Technical Planning Advisory Committee - with members representing the city, Airport Commission, Massport, FAA, MAC and the town of Leicester - preceded a public hearing on Dec. 13. The purpose of the hearing was to introduce the FAA survey, presented by Ralph Nicosia-Rusin on behalf of the New England Airport Coalition, and to provide a master plan update by Greg Detmer, director of the Jacobs group.

Having closely followed the airport's history for at least 15 years - as a journalist and a member of both the Airport Commission and the master plan advisory group - I have come to two basic conclusions: 1) Few of the findings and recommendations offered by a string of reports over the years are new or surprising; 2) None of the outlined goals and needs for the future could be met without Massport's help.

All surveys recognize Worcester's airport (identified by the bureaucracy as ORH) as a key regional aviation resource that should be preserved. All agree that major infrastructure improvements are needed. And all conclude that continuing Massport involvement is essential.

The AFA study revealed that Worcester Regional Airport has a "catchment area" of 2.2 million passengers, but more than half of them use Logan International Airport. The FAA "sensitivity analysis" concluded that a 10-minute reduction in ground access travel would increase the 2020 forecast of 284,000 passengers by 40 percent, to 395,000 travelers. Other surveys, including the IMG study, reached similar conclusions.

Both the master plan and FAA reports outline low, medium and high growth scenarios through 2020. Both emphasize the importance of a mix of general and corporate aviation, economic development of airport property, and attracting "niche" commercial flights. Worcester has solicited bids for a site that could be developed for aircraft hangars. There has been no response. Bids for a second, and larger, location are expected to go out soon. The city recently signed an agreement with Coordinates Corp., a Lexington-based enterprise with ties to MIT, to maintain a large corporate jet here, as a subtenant of Swissport, the airport's current FBO.

Even the low-growth scenario, which envisions only a general aviation airport, stresses the need for immediate capital investment in runway safety, security, navigational technology and building improvements. Recently approved consulting fees for architectural and engineering work alone amount to more than $2 million.

The medium-growth scenario calls for a regional commercial airport with service to return to the pre-Sept. 11 passenger level, in addition to robust corporate and general aviation. It envisions 284,000 travelers by 2020. The high-growth scenario, which expects to surpass the peak service of the 1980s, projects 536,000 passengers. The level of capital investment grows with each scenario.

The surveys outline potential funding sources but offer no cost analyses for any of the scenarios. It is clear, however, that even if up to 80 percent of the money comes from federal and state sources, the city's share would still amount to millions of dollars.

As in the past, all surveys emphasize the need for improved customer service, environmental protection, marketing and community involvement to "increase awareness among the public, airline industry, civic and business leaders." There are calls for sustaining current grants and securing new ones. And so it goes. We've heard it all before.

Worcester Regional Airport doesn't need any more surveys, studies, reports or expensive consultants. Its future pretty much depends on the outcome of the city's negotiations with Massport on the extent and conditions of the authority's involvement. Surveys cannot ensure the airport's success, but Massport could.

Robert Z. Nemeth's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.

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