Three decades ago, the passenger terminal at Westchester County Airport was a 10,000-square-foot Quonset hut ushering passengers to and from prop planes built for up to 30 passengers.
Today, the airport serves roughly 1.5 million passengers a year in a terminal four times the size of that old Quonset hut.
But passenger totals are down significantly in recent years, a by-product of trends in the airline industry and strategies that have placed regional airports like Westchester at a crossroads.
Westchester is not alone among smaller airports in the New York region to witness six-figure drops in passenger totals, The Journal News has found. Two other similar regional airports, MacArthur Airport in Long Island and Stewart International in Newburgh, mirror Westchester’s declining trend.
And a key reason, industry experts say, is that planes keep getting bigger. Soon, the 50-seaters favored by JetBlue, Delta and United on short hops to Florida, Chicago and Washington will be sent to the place where airplanes go to die, taking their place beside the Wright Flyer and other aviation relics.
In their place will be more fuel-efficient, environment-friendly 70-plus seat planes that play into the industry’s new management strategy, “capacity discipline,” which calls for removing unprofitable service and duplication.
That strategy has Westchester County Airport confronting a difficult reality.
The limits are critical
The question comes down to this: Will the county accede to industry pressures and adjust its decades-old passenger limits in the face of stiff community opposition? Or will it maintain the status quo and risk losing more major airlines and the revenue streams that come with them?
County Executive Rob Astorino is pushing ahead with a controversial plan to do away with half-hour passenger limits as a way to hold onto those dollars.
“In addition to placing constraints on existing airlines serving the airport, the passenger capacity limitation has resulted in the county being unable to attract new air carrier service,” Astorino said in a letter to the county legislature last month.
Westchester only needs to look east and north to see the bigger picture.
At Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, passenger totals were down nearly 10 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 312,000 to 288,000. Its passenger total in 2011 was 400,000.
Passenger totals at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport have been in steady decline since reaching 1.6 million in 2011. Last year the total was at 1.2 million, down nearly 7 percent from around 1.3 million in 2014, according to federal Department of Transportation statistics.
A 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation showed that, between 2007 and 2012, smaller airports witnessed bigger decreases in domestic flights and passenger seats than larger airports as a result of the struggling economy, high fuel prices and airline management strategies. Between 2012 and 2013, smaller airports saw a nearly 3 percent decline in domestic flights while large-hub airports had just a 0.2 percent reduction, the study found.
It noted that planes seating between 37 and 50 passengers were being taken out of service at smaller airports.
“Some of this service is being replaced by larger 76-seat regional jet flights, but much of this scheduled service to smaller communities is being removed entirely,” the study said.
The departures of discount airline AirTran and United partner Colgan Airlines from Westchester airport in 2012 were said to have cost the county $2 million out of a budget that hovers around $45 million annually. It also cost the airport roughly 350,000 passengers annually. As a result, over the last three years, passenger totals have remained flat at around 1.5 million, down from a high of nearly 2 million in 2011.
County officials say they cut expenses to close a budget gap created by the loss of Colgan and AirTran.
But Astorino fears the county will have a difficult time attracting new carriers unless the legislature moves quickly to do away with half-hourly passenger limits of 240, and replace it with a daily passenger cap of 11,520. The 11,520 represents the half-hour limit calculated over the course of a day.In the ten months between January and October 2015, the airport averaged around 4,050 passengers per day, airport statistics show.
Such a move would give airlines more flexibility to increase passenger totals during busier morning hours without fear of going over the cap. It would allow four or more jets carrying 70-plus passengers to land or depart in the same half hour. The airport will continue with a voluntary curfew between midnight and 6 a.m.
Will airlines leave?
“With aircraft manufacturers such as Embraer and Bombardier forecasting a market for approximately 7,000 new aircraft with larger seating capacities over the next 15 years, it is critical that the county address the current passenger capacity limitations at this time,” Astorino said.
It’s unclear whether any of the airlines would abandon Westchester if the limits go unchanged.
United spokeswoman Maddie King hinted that the airline will be keeping a close eye on developments on the passenger limit issue.
“We will continue to work with the airport to ensure we have the facilities we need to serve our customers,” King said. “We will serve HPN (Westchester County Airport) so long as it creates value for the United network.”
A spokesman for American Airlines, which also flies out of Westchester, told The Journal News that the carrier has not discussed the issue with county officials.
Representatives for JetBlue and Delta could not immediately be reached for comment.
At a legislative meeting last month, airport manager Peter Scherrer said the airlines came to the county several months ago asking if it would consider altering the passenger limits.
All this comes as the airport is in the midst of $30 million in upgrades, which would increase the size of the passenger terminal by 20 percent. Construction is supposed to begin in the next four years and could be funded, in part, by a new passenger fee.
County officials won’t speculate on whether the loss of an airline could stall those plans. They say the improvements are being paid for by money set aside for capital projects.
And revenue from commercial airlines is still significantly less than revenue from corporate clients, which comes primarily through hangar rental fees, county officials say. Other revenue comes from fueling fees, concessions and ground handling fees.
But county officials say a failure to change the limits could increase pressure on commercial airlines to make a move.
“These are the planes that the airline manufacturers are building,” Astorino spokesman Ned McCormack said. “And if the airlines are buying planes that can’t land at Westchester airport, they’re going to pull out.”
And, McCormack noted, the newer jets are quieter and spew less pollution.
“It’s not a trade between smaller and bigger,” McCormack said. “It’s a trade from smaller to better aircraft with less pollution, less noise and, probably, fewer flights.”
Limits already impacting
McCormack said the current passenger limits played a role in the decision by Colgan to leave the airport in 2012 after attempts to fly 70-seat planes to Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington, D.C., foundered. The company later went out of business.
“The cap got in the way,” McCormack said. “We couldn’t accommodate them and so they withdrew. That’s something that we want to guard against.”
Westchester still valued
Aviation experts say the dwindling passenger totals at Westchester and the other smaller airports are evidence of a shift by the airlines towards more efficient use of their hubs. But they say Westchester will continue to play a critical role in serving passengers from nearby Connecticut towns and the lower Hudson Valley.
“Twenty five years ago airlines would kill to get into Westchester,” said industry expert Michael Boyd, the president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting group based in Colorado. “So going down to 1.5 million passengers is not a bad thing. The reality is it fits a certain role in terms of the air service picture in the metro area. The mix of air service in the region has changed and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Westchester.”
But, Boyd said, doing away with the half-hour limits are a good start.
“Changing the half-hourly limits makes a lot of sense,” Boyd said. “Airplanes are getting bigger.”
‘The value of an airport is not measured by the number of humans that use it,” he added. “Its valued by what it does for the community it serves. Westchester is doing what it needs to do.”
Astorino’s proposal to do away the half-hourly passenger limits has already been met with opposition. Members of the airport’s advisory board accused the county of attempting an end-run around their input after several members questioned Astorino’s plan. And neighboring towns who fear bigger jets will lead to more car traffic and more noise have weighed in as well.
The towns of Port Chester and Rye Brook have passed resolutions opposing the measure and town leaders in Greenwich, Ct. say they have concerns about the impact the proposed changes will have on its quality of life.
County Legislator David Gelfarb, R-Rye Town , said he’s been frustrated by the lack of information coming from the county and the airlines regarding the plan’s impact.
“The airlines have certainly seemed to have operated profitably and well at Westchester airport,” Gelfarb said. “We have not seen any record made of the need for this… We haven’t heard one peep from the airlines. I think it would be productive for us to hear from them.”
McCormack said the county is doing its best to strike a balance between the concerns raised by neighboring towns while insuring that the airport doesn’t suffer.
“You’ve got to think in terms of an asset,” he said. “To have an airport is a big asset for people in Westchester County and so you want to make sure that that asset grows with the future, grows with technology and grows with the needs of passenger and the airlines, while protecting the interests of their neighbors.”