Direct Air's decision last month to suspend all its commercial flights reopened a long-running debate over the future of passenger air traffic at Worcester Regional Airport. Like the movie Ground Hog Day, Direct Air is playing out a scene that has been played out before in Worcester: bringing all commercial passenger traffic to a halt.
But there's no need for a debate on this subject. It's clear – painfully, to many - that despite a noteworthy and commendable increase in commercial passenger traffic over the past several years, commercial passenger flights are simply not going to be a viable part of the airport for the foreseeable future. Here are three reasons why:
· Worcester Regional Airport is a bit player surrounded by larger airports in four states, all within a 90-minute drive of Central Massachusetts, and all offering robust schedules of flights from multiple airlines to multiple destinations. For Worcester to develop a competitive schedule of flights would require a quantum leap, which is simply not in the cards.
· It's in a hard-to-reach location, with no easy access to a highway, unlike the larger airports in Boston (Logan), Rhode Island (T.F. Green), Connecticut (Bradley) and Manchester, N.H.
· Rising fuel costs make it increasingly difficult for carriers' cost structures (and according to published reports, difficulty in paying for fuel was a factor that led Direct Air to halt operations).
· Direct Air wasn't offering flights to well-traveled air traffic hubs such as New York, Washington and Chicago. Rather, it was offering flights to "luxury" destinations in the U.S.: Florida and Myrtle Beach, S.C. If no carrier will bite on "hub and spoke" service from Worcester that can take travelers to other destinations through connecting flights, it's not worth the investment.
Some in our region have interpreted Direct Air's suspension of service as being a slap in the face of Greater Worcester. We understand how such a decision can inflict wounds on those who have a strong, admirable sense of civic pride.
The Massachusetts Port Authority, the state agency that took control of the airport from the City of Worcester in 2010, is bullish on the future of commercial passenger traffic and the long-range viability of the Worcester airport. It reinforced that sentiment last week in a full-page letter in the Telegram & Gazette. In it, Massport said it believes the airport is a "strategic asset of great potential as an economic engine for Central Massachusetts, as well as a key player in the long-range air transportation needs of the New England region." Massport recently backed up its support when it hired a Bedford firm, Rectrix Aviation, to develop and promote the airport including, notably, a $5 million aircraft hangar. Richard Cawley, Rectrix's president and CEO, told us recently that one of the most significant things his company is doing is establishing a maintenance facility in Worcester. He said corporations and other airplane owners are willing to travel anywhere in the country to have mechanical work done as long as they can find good service and reliability.
We agree about the airport's potential. But potential is a dirty word when it goes unused. The question remains: How can the airport actually achieve that potential, and can it happen in our lifetime?
The answer for the Worcester facility, in the near to mid-term, seems to lie not in commercial passenger traffic, or even larger-scale freight traffic, but rather in general aviation for business travelers. If predictions of economic growth in the Greater Worcester and Interstate 495 areas – according to the recently unveiled 495/MetroWest Development Compact Plan – hold true, the advantages of having a nearby airport that can accommodate the traveling needs of business executives would be a plus for the region's economic fortunes. Hanscom Field in Bedford, a full-service general aviation airport, is a popular choice for business executives. According to Massport, Hanscom's average monthly flight traffic in 2011 was more than 13,000 aircraft, compared with about 4,500 general aviation flights into and out of Worcester. There's clearly an opportunity to expand in that market space here. If Massport were to further train its focus in that direction, Worcester Regional Airport would become a much more viable asset to the region, especially the business community.