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The largest single transportation facility in Worcester, and arguably that with the most potential, Worcester Regional Airport (airport code ORH) is a critical element in Greater Worcester's transportation tripod of road, rail, and air.
Founded as a municipal airport in 1946, ORH was acquired by the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) in 2010 following a decade of joint city-Massport control. While passenger traffic peaked at 354,000 in 1989, the airport struggled at times in the face of competition from Logan International Airport and the expansion of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire and T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island. Worcester Regional Airport is now poised for its own expansion with increasingly reliable air travel as a result of the launch of JetBlue service in 2013 and with a state-of-the-art navigation system under construction allowing for instrument-only landings regardless of visibility conditions.
The Worcester Regional Research Bureau's recent brief on ORH presents a snapshot on the airport. While commercial air traffic has been limited at various points over its history, ORH handles tens of thousands of operations annually, mainly from private flights and local traffic generated at the airport itself.
In 2015, ORH averaged 110 operations daily. Load factors at the airport, or the percent of passengers to available seats, are consistently high and only slightly beneath that of other national and international airports in the region. Importantly, they continue to increase.
Massport CEO Thomas P. Glynn has said that Massport is not only a transportation agency but an economic development agency. Greater Worcester needs to embrace that philosophy as well. ORH has a potential market of 2.2 million people. While JetBlue offers flights to vacation markets in Florida, there is an unfulfilled – and unquantified – demand for strategic flights connecting to markets throughout the country for individual, business, higher education, convention and vacation travelers.
As Worcester assembles a team to attract new businesses to the region, stakeholders should craft a similar, sustained initiative to attract new flights to build on Worcester's unique value proposition. Working with Massport, the region should target airlines and destinations to offer strategic routes and competitive alternatives for travelers in Central Massachusetts, MetroWest and beyond.
Like any industry, airline activity is guided by economic forces. New routes must be financially viable. Rectrix – a private, Massachusetts-based entity providing aviation services at ORH and currently offering charter operations – offers a unique opportunity. As Rectrix expands to provide scheduled services that compete directly for individual travelers, local civic and business leaders may be able to identify, secure and support flights to critical markets and at critical times. Local conversations might unlock national destinations. A successful run of new flights would prove Worcester's strength and eventually draw additional competitors to the field.
ORH is taking off. So is Greater Worcester. With the right strategy and implementation, the sky's the limit.
Timothy J. McGourthy is the executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.
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