Bradley International Airport Saw Early Recovery in 2021; Freight Traffic Came Back Stronger than Passengers

Feb. 23, 2022

WINDSOR LOCKS — Bradley International Airport saw more than 2 million passenger boardings in 2021, an 80% jump over 2020, when COVID-19 shut down most air travel for months.

“We are still lagging prepandemic levels as it relates to passenger travel,” said Kevin A. Dillon, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which runs Bradley and other airports in Connecticut.

But Bradley is only down 15% from 2019, putting it further along in its recovery than Dillon thought it would be. He thought Bradley wouldn’t hit this level until well into 2022.

“It was a ghost town here in the terminal. We have certainly come a long way,” he said.

It’s busier now, with amenities coming back. In January, Bradley welcomed vendors Auntie Anne’s pretzels and Carvel ice cream.

A lot of the lost passenger traffic is business travel. With fewer workers in offices, fewer people are traveling to visit clients on sales calls or to conventions, Dillon said. That hurts airlines because business travelers typically book at the last minute and pay more for their seats.

Bradley has been unable to regain its Air Canada flights following the pandemic, nor has Aer Lingus restarted its flights from Connecticut to Dublin, what had been the airport’s only transatlantic service.

The Canadian border recently reopened to nonessential travel, but those headed there are still subject to restrictions, Dillon said.

“It really put a couple of burdens on the aviation sector,” he said of the pandemic.

Same with testing requirements and travel restrictions for Ireland and other members of the European Union hurting demand for Aer Lingus.

“That puts people off from even considering it,” Dillon said. “They are more likely to travel domestically.”

Aer Lingus is committed to the market, he said, but won’t resume flights until late 2022 or, more likely, 2023. The Irish airline began flying from Bradley in September 2016, bringing transatlantic service to the airport for the first time since Northwest flew from Bradly to Amsterdam in 2007 and 2008.

Bradley has been adding new nonstop service in the last few months, mostly seasonal vacation destinations like Cancun, Mexico; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Miami and Orlando in Florida. The airport was also able to add flights to San Francisco and Nashville during the pandemic.

Its wish list includes Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Savannah, Georgia. Bradley develops this list from travel patterns of folks who fly out of Bradley now but make connecting flights, and from talking with corporations who send out business travelers.

Freight traffic has been a bright spot. With more folks shopping from home, Amazon, DHL and FedEx all grew at the airport.

Cargo is an important business to develop because it generates employment, Dillon said. And cargo carriers can find themselves priced out of the bigger airports, like John F. Kennedy International in New York.

Bradley is thinking of developing, on spec, a mid-range 90,000- or 100,000-square-foot cargo handling facility to attract business.

Already underway is the airport’s ground transportation center, a $210 million project funded by surcharges on rental cars. It will have centralized car rentals — no more riding a bus to a lot — as well as transit bus connections and increased public parking with 600 new spaces. It’s set to open in May.

Dillon said the ground transportation center is built to accommodate future rail connections and, in the shorter term, Bradley hopes to improve its bus connections both to Hartford and to Springfield.

Better bus connections would not only make it easier for travelers but also help shuttle commuting workers to the airport. Airport employers, like others, have had to scramble to find help in recent months.

Bradley plans to bring federal inspection station back into the terminal building and relocate its explosives detection equipment to free up space and bring scanners out of the lobby. The airport is nearly out of ticket counter space, so Dillon wants to reconfigure the way passengers flow through the building.

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