“We still have customers coming in saying, ‘This is my first flight out of Worcester, I didn’t know there was an airport here,’” JetBlue’s Worcester General Manager, Michael Chambers, said recently about Worcester Regional Airport.
That attitude – indifference to Worcester Regional Airport to the point of not even knowing it exists – is not uncommon among Worcester-area residents accustomed to making the trek into Boston to fly out of Logan International Airport. But private companies and individual pilots make extensive use of the airport, also known by its International Air Transport Association, or IATA, airport code: ORH. And the number of passengers on JetBlue flights, which started service here in 2013, has been increasing.
Since the Massachusetts Port Authority, or Massport, took over in 2010, there have been a number of infrastructure improvements and upgrades, in addition to luring JetBlue into the fold. In fact, two press releases that may have gone over the heads of landlubbers should have massive implications in the aviation industry as it relates to Worcester. The first, the implementation of a CAT III landing system, will pave the way for a future without fog diversions at ORH, perhaps enabling large airlines to take Worcester seriously as a permanent destination. The second, the opening of a Rectrix Aviation facility on airport property, signals an increased level of seriousness in private aviation, and if an application to the Department of Transportation is approved, more destinations for air travelers.
With millions of dollars being poured into infrastructure and direct commercial flights to only two destinations, the airport certainly isn’t what it was in its heyday, before carriers abandoned it for surrounding airfields. Even some of its most ardent supporters, arguably the biggest being former Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, grow impatient when it comes to growth at the airport.
Any frustration, however, is countered by optimism that ongoing improvements are just the beginning of a Worcester Airport renaissance that would benefit the region as a whole. Are they right? Time will tell. Or, as the Worcester Regional Research Bureau put it in a Bureau Brief issued this week, “Is ORH on a flightpath to once again become an economic driver for Greater Worcester?”
While JetBlue has dominated the conversation around service at ORH, its flights actually only make up about 4 percent of traffic at the airport, according to airport manager Andy Davis. The vast majority of traffic is “general aviation,” consisting of private planes and pilots.
“It’s a misconception that JetBlue flies out and that’s the only activity at the airport,” Davis said. “That’s the glamour of this airport, to accommodate general aviation, corporate aviation and commercial aviation.”
Davis works for Massport, which agreed to take over ownership and management of ORH from the City of Worcester in 2010 after years of local control; the airport has been around since the 1920s, but fell off the map before the Massport takeover in the midst of a decline in the air travel industry overall.
“We are within 50 to 70 miles of four other airports providing commercial aviation,” Davis said. “We don’t look at being a competitor, but to be able to provide convenient, low-cost options for central Massachusetts so they wouldn’t have to drive those 50 miles to other airports.”
Murray, who is now president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and who was intimately involved with promoting and improving Worcester Airport both as lieutenant governor to Gov. Deval Patrick and mayor of Worcester, said he believed the airport was crucial to the success of the region as a whole, and that Massport was taking it in the right direction.
“A foundational element to [economic development] is having robust transportation elements, and that includes roads, rail and air travel. Cities that are doing well, they have transportation systems that give people options,” Murray said. “I’m as impatient as anybody. But by any measure, since Massport has taken over there’s been huge progress.”
Meanwhile, Davis said Logan is close to bursting at the seams, and Worcester could benefit from the overflow.
“It seems like we’re announcing a new airline [at Logan] every week,” Davis said. “That’s showing the demand there. But Boston at some point is going to reach capacity, with no more room to grow, but the demand is still going to increase.”
Massport employs 34 people at ORH, but has distributed roughly 300 security badges, according to Davis, to TSA agents and Rectrix employees. In terms of investment beyond the CAT III system, Massport will have to pony up around $10 million to resurface two taxiways in the future, as well as more than $2 million in terminal security and modernization improvements and additional money for new snow removal equipment.
Recently, as Davis looked out onto a terminal floor with five more slots for airlines besides JetBlue and a sparse smattering of employees buffing the floor and making the rounds, he confirmed what everyone in Worcester already assumed: Worcester is nowhere near its current capacity, never mind a theoretical future one.
“We can easily quadruple in activity without having any kind of infrastructure investment,” Davis said.
CAT III OUT OF THE BAG
“CAT III is what they need to get another airline,” Chambers said. “Our only big issue here currently is the fact that we don’t have CAT III.”
CAT III is industry shorthand for a Category 3 Instrument Landing System. Basically, the landing system category dictates how good conditions need to be to in order to land a plane. In a CAT I airport, pilots need a runway visibility range of 1,800 to 4,000 feet, and the decision height – when a pilot must decide to miss the approach or continue – is around 200 feet. In a CAT III airport, the runway visibility range is 600 to 1,200 feet, and the decision height is 50 feet, allowing landings in poor conditions with less visibility.
Worcester sees about 40 more days of fog per year than Boston, and the airport’s elevation does it no favors. The view of the city from the runway is amazing, but at more than 1,000 feet above sea level – compared to 20 feet for Logan and 55 feet for Providence – Worcester often, as Davis put it, “has its head in the clouds.”
The new landing system will change that, he promised.
“By the end of 2017, we’ll eliminate the impression that we’re an unreliable airport,” Davis said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has committed to taking ownership of the system after its completion. While funding has already been secured – the landing system is part of $32 million in infrastructure improvements that also include a “jug handle” on the runway to allow larger planes a bigger turning radius, and $10 million of that is eligible for federal grant money – the landing system won’t be complete until late 2017 at best, and even then will take some testing to be ready for launch.
JetBlue started service to Worcester in November 2013. From that time until March 14, 2015 – near the date of the celebratory press conference at the airport laying out the CAT III plan – the carrier diverted 44 flights that could have landed with a CAT III system.
Although according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics cited by the Research Bureau, fewer than 0.6 percent of Worcester’s arrivals from June 2003 to November 2015 were weather-related – fewer than Boston, Providence or Manchester.
Rectrix owner Rich Cawley said Rectrix has “very seldom” run into problems with weather at Worcester Airport. But he also said private air traffic is not a good measure of problems like that at an airport, since they are not bound by schedules and appointments.
“We’re private, so we can go anytime we want,” Cawley said. “But when you’re a scheduled airline, you have to land somewhere because that aircraft is going to be used all day long all across the country. Rectrix is a bad barometer because we can leave anytime we want.”
In fact, JetBlue has changed its schedule to account for fog. When service first started, flights were earlier and ran into weather problems. The company shifted arrival and departure times to later in the day when the fog burned off the runway, leading to better results in the past year in terms of diversions.
“Had we had a CAT III in that first year, 90 percent of the flights we diverted wouldn’t have been diverted,” Chambers said. “With the way our schedule has been in the middle of the day, that really has played a part [in the improvement].”
Of course, the multi-million-dollar question is whether the CAT III system can lure another commercial airline carrier to ORH. The consensus seems to be it’s a prerequisite for any new, serious service, although no one has yet committed to saying it’s the last and only barrier to coming to Worcester.
“It will definitely enhance the experience for the customers we have now,” Chambers said. “Having less chance of diversion … I wouldn’t say that we are already looking to expand based on the CAT III, but having that CAT III might be a factor, further down the line knowing the fog won’t be an issue.”
‘WHITE GLOVE SERVICE’
Rectrix’s new facility adjoining the airfield almost smells new – opened in November, it features conference rooms, offices and the standard Rectrix fireplace. The company performs maintenance work on the airfield for JetBlue, provides charter flight services and is a Fixed Base Operator – in essence, a private jet terminal.
“We’re the elite,” Cawley said. “We offer the services that the competitors at the other general aviation airports around just can’t offer. We have heated hangars, conference rooms – we offer everything that any good company would want when they’re looking to relocate their business or do business in the state.” “I don’t like to use the word ‘luxury,’ but we’re five star,” Cawley continued. “We treat everyone the same, whether they own a small aircraft or a large aircraft, we treat them with white glove service.”
Rectrix is the first in what Davis hopes is a long line of businesses that join Massport on the 1,300 acres that comprise the ORH property. Unlike Logan, surrounded on three sides by water and Boston on the other, or Hanscom, restricted by Air Force needs, Worcester has ample room for expansion and more companies that could benefit from immediate proximity to an airfield.
“We have parcels around the airport that would accommodate that, where you would need direct access to the airfield,” Davis said, citing private hangar services as well as maintenance or retrofitting businesses. “Our preference is really to have airport supporttype businesses grow with us. At some point we’ll be promoting those parcels as we see more imminent growth at the airport.”
Rectrix actually acquired its space in 2012, and has been expanding ever since. Cawley estimated a $5-million investment in tearing down old buildings and building a new hangar adjacent an existing hangar, and he said that number will rise to $6.5 million by summer with equipment purchases. Rectrix has 23 employees, and Cawley estimated that although customers can be transient in the air service world, his company contracts with hundreds per year.
The bigger news could be yet to come, though.
Cawley said Rectrix has applied for a commuter license. Right now, he has to rent out an entire plane, limiting clients to corporate interests or wealthy residents. If the application goes through, he will be able to sell space on planes by the seat. So what would separate Rectrix from JetBlue?
“Once we receive all our authorizations from the [Department of Transportation], it really will be no different,” Cawley said.
Cawley, a Sherborn native, dropped destinations such as New York or Cape Cod, but said getting too far into specific destinations would be unfair to the agencies he’s applied to.
“I assure you it’s many,” he said.
Cawley is an unrelenting booster for Worcester, routinely complimenting Massport and talking about plans for the future.
“You put that type of money into infrastructure because you know what the endgame is going to be, and that’s success,” Cawley said.
If everything goes according to plan, Rectrix will be selling by the seat this summer. Rectrix is also obligated to build a new “fuel farm” for the airport to replace an outdated below-ground facility, which is in the planning stages. As for why he chose to open up shop in Worcester – in addition to his FBO locations in Hyannis, Bedford, Westfield and Sarasota, Fla. – Cawley said it was due to the warm welcome he got in Worcester as well as the cohesive plan he saw laid out for the future.
“What’s nice is you have your congressman [Jim McGovern], your senators, your governor’s office, they all work together,” Cawley said. “The local mayor’s office doesn’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican, they work together. Do you see that in Washington? You’re so fortunate.”
JETBLUE IN THE FACE
The bad news comes first – JetBlue is not planning on expanding service at Worcester Airport.
“I don’t think, at not least in the near future, that we have any expansion plans at the moment,” Chambers said. “We still have some ground to cover with existing service and improving on that.”
Chambers cites the CAT III system and improving diversion rates as one way to improve existing service, although it would be hard for customer satisfaction to get much higher than it is now. JetBlue flies to 95 cities, and in a customer satisfaction survey, Worcester ranked first in the country – an astounding statistic, but one Chambers said did not necessarily come as a surprise.
“It’s not the smallest, but that being said, having a small airport and being currently the only airline, it just adds to the convenience for our customers,” Chambers said. “We’re one of the few airports where you can park your car, check in, check your bags, pass the TSA and be sitting at your gate within 10 minutes of being at the airport.”
Anecdotes from the region’s residents match that message, with people citing not only the location of ORH, but the short lines and cheap parking – $7 per day – as factors in making their experience great.
“I’ve flown out of Worcester with two small children,” one customer, Mike Cronin, said in an email. “It couldn’t have gone any better. It’s like catching a bus, no stress.”
If you’re going to Florida, the choice between slogging through Logan or taking a jaunt down to Worcester is a no-brainer, according to boosters.
“We’ve got people who live next to Logan who are driving to Worcester to fly out because of how convenient it is,” Chambers claimed.
Chambers insisted he couldn’t pin the change on the introduction of Worcester service, but between 2013 and 2014, he said, flights to Florida from other area markets decreased 10 percent – perhaps a symptom of a larger issue, but possibly a result of more people flying to Florida through Worcester rather than Logan or Manchester. JetBlue’s flights are 85 percent full on average, he said.
While Chambers and others are quick to note that Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, the two locations JetBlue flies to, are both hubs passengers can use to connect to other destinations, the fact remains that commercial air service only goes to one state in the union. Worcesterites headed to New York aren’t going to be thrilled about a layover in Florida, after all, making Logan the only choice for some of the most popular destinations, a list that also includes Chicago and Washington/ Baltimore. But so far, no other airline has volunteered to set up in ORH before the CAT III system is installed.
“We constantly talk to them,” Davis said. “There’s a wishlist of the airlines that makes the most sense, and we present to them on what the benefits are to flying out of Worcester.”
Airlines that make sense are ones that fly to business destinations as well as vacation spots to provide a mix of options for customers, according to Davis. He noted the airlines do their own market research on Worcester as well as participating in a number of annual conferences where Massport officials pitch them on ORH, although no one has yet taken the bait on the airport.
“We have no current plans to serve Worcester Regional Airport, however, we are in constant communication with airports across the country to see where additional service makes the most sense,” a Southwest Airlines spokesperson said in an email, representative of other replies from major carriers. “Additionally, we watch customer travel patterns to make sure our service matches that of our customer’s needs and desires.”
A thought experiment, proposed in one form or another by almost everyone interviewed for this story. Imagine you live exactly halfway between Worcester and Logan, and both have flights to a destination you need to get to. Which one do you go to? The answer is always Worcester – cheaper parking, shorter lines, etc. But even that conversation may be outdated, some say, as more people migrate to MetroWest and the Worcester area to escape rising rent prices and congestion in Boston – 2.2 million potential air customers live closer to Worcester than Boston, by some counts.
“Worcester’s a home run,” Cawley said. “If you look at it geographically, where it’s located, a lot of the businesses are moving west, and they’re moving out to 495, the 290 area, 190, the surrounding communities … that’s where the general population and the businesses are moving.”
Murray, now working as a Central Mass business booster, agreed.
“I think it’s persistence and leverage,” Murray said. “East is coming West. Every day you’re hearing stories about how expensive Boston is becoming – not just for businesses, but for people living there.”
Murray’s tip for the new gubernatorial administration is to keep Worcester in mind when conversations about capacity at Logan inevitably crop up again. When he was lieutenant governor, he said, the administration made attracting more international service to Logan a priority, and as the new administration has shown no interest in slowing down that growth, Murray said Worcester could step up to the plate in a big way.
“As more international flights come, that puts more pressure on Logan,” Murray said. “Is there an ability to move some of those domestic flights to here? We have to make sure Worcester is top of the mind when those conversations are happening.”
In past news stories about the airport, access from the Mass Pike has been a sore spot, but optimism abounds around that area as well.
“The only complaint I ever hear is access off the Mass Pike, but that’s all B.S.,” Cawley said. “I live in Sherborn, and I’m there in 10 minutes off the Mass Pike. You’re telling me you’d rather wait in traffic in the Ted Williams Tunnel or the Mass Pike going eastbound? There’s no comparison. It’s just educating the consumer.”
For his part, Davis relishes arguments over any difficulty accessing the airport.
“Our customer base is right in Worcester, Shrewsbury, Auburn,” Davis said. “We don’t have an access road. We have six great ways to get to the airport, from all different directions. I love getting into debates with people about how long it takes to get to the airport.”
As for future service – to stop the flow of people who live next to ORH driving to Boston – Davis and others point to a rising tide lifting all boats – or in this case, airplanes. September 11, 2001, rising fuel prices and a global recession all hit the airline industry hard, they said. But as those things fade into the background, airlines will be looking to expand, and Worcester has made itself a tantalizing target.
“As we see the economy continue to improve, fuel prices going down, we’re probably going to see airports becoming more competitive,” Davis said. “And one of the biggest competitive benefits is to provide two things – more frequency and more network destinations for their customers.”
Around the corner from every decision to invest a few million more dollars in ORH, there are people asking the essential question: should we even be spending the money? If there is virtually no one using the terminal, why spend taxpayer money upgrading it? To those people, Davis and others have an answer.
“We’re investing in the future,” Davis said. “We don’t have airlines banging the doors down, but we do have airlines starting to bang the door down at Boston, saying why can’t you fit us in? We’ve investing the money, but we’re doing it for the long run. Airports operate with a negative factor because we look at the bigger picture in terms of how well it benefits the economy of the region.”
The powers that be are of one mind when it comes to the value of the airport. Massport commissioned a 2013 study to prove that point, and Frasca and Associates came back with numbers to back up the argument for the airport. The report predicted nearly 200,000 passengers in 2015 on JetBlue service, with a marginal increase in 2016, although their forecast rose to over 300,000 annually in 2017 and almost half a million per year by 2023. They looked at comparable airports, including Manchester and Providence, and used their predicted numbers to come up with an expected total economic impact over 10 years – $368.6 million, outstripping Massport’s infrastructure investments.
“To be a city of a certain size and stature, I think you need to have an airport,” City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. said. “I think there’s a lot of money to be had if you could recapture some of the visitors to central Massachusetts, or even as a gateway to New England.”
Although technically the airport only had a brief service hiatus in between a heyday of around 350,000 passengers in 1988 and its current near-vacancy of commercial aviation, Cawley preferred to portray ORH as in its infancy, and said it had nowhere to go but up – metaphorically, of course.
“You have to be patient in this type of business,” Cawley said. “People are creatures of habit. Generally, they would go to Hanscom in Bedford or [Manchester]. But if you offer the services we offer, and you explain to them about Worcester – they balk at first, but once you explain to them the ease of getting in there, they say it’s great.”
Reporter Tom Quinn can be reached at 508-749-3166 x324 or tquinn@ worcestermagazine.com with story ideas, feedback, or questions. Follow him on Twitter @bytomquinn.