Worcester Regional Airport is betting a $32-million landing system can overcome the facility’s faults and a declining airline departure trend to create consistent commercial service.
The new system, called CAT III, adds more lighting the airport’s two runways, adds a so-called jughandle to allow planes to turn around or move to the side if needed, and includes technology to help pilots orient themselves horizontally and vertically in poor visibility.
Once the CAT III is in place in December, planes could land with visibility down to 600 feet or a 50-foot ceiling, an upgrade from the 1,800 feet with 200-foot ceiling now.
The difference will lead to flights landing with better predictability, potentially encouraging airlines and passengers to use a facility ranked ninth among New England airports – after suffering from fog and unpredictable weather because of its hilltop location.
“We’re in the clouds. We’re not just in fog but in the clouds more than we’d prefer, and more than our airliners would prefer,” said Andrew Davis, the Worcester airport director. “It’s basically a standard, almost a demand, of airliners now that want assurance they can get their passengers in and out, to have CAT III.”
The new technology alone “won’t cause airlines to flock to Worcester, but it gives them one less reason to rule out service,” said Henry Harteveldt, the president of the travel industry analyst group Atmosphere Research Group.
Already, the CAT III system has attracted JetBlue to fly to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport once the system is complete.
Upgrades to attract airlines
The CAT III upgrades are the latest in a line of airport improvements since the Massachusetts Port Authority bought the airport from the city for $14 million in 2010. In 2012, Massport spent $12 million to resurface the main runway and add emergency end-of-runway stopping systems, while increasing aircraft rescue, safety and firefighting vehicles and positions.
The new improvements seek to level out what has been an up-and-down relationship with airlines for the past three decades.
In 1987, when Continental started service from Worcester, it spelled the city’s name wrong – as Worchester – on schedules. In 1995, an inaugural US Airways flight from Philadelphia – the airport’s first commercial flight in six months – was due to land to a waiting group of dignitaries but was rerouted to Providence because of fog.
In 2005, a Federal Aviation Administration study of 11 New England airports didn’t even include Worcester because the airport had no commercial service at the time, spurring discussion of a name change, such as Worcester-Boston Regional Airport. The airport considered roadway changes to make access from I-290 easier after a study said it would increase ridership by more than one-thrid.
When airliners left Worcester – sometimes after only a few months – they’ve cited a lack of enough demand to turn a profit. Worcester once had six commercial carriers, but on three separate occasions, the city has been left without a single commercial flight.
Fewer flights, fewer passengers
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation reported in 2013 smaller U.S. airports saw a 19-percent drop in departures from 2007 to 2012, doubling the rate of the largest airports.
At Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire and T.F. Green Airport outside Providence, flights fell by more than one-third, while ticket prices at each rose by more than 13 percent, MIT said. Bradley International Airport outside Hartford had flights fall by 24 percent and prices rise by 8 percent.
“Smaller airports are, for the most part, barely holding on, or losing service,” said Robert Mann, the president of airline industry analyst R.W. Mann & Co. “Airlines would like you to drive right by Worcester to Bradley or Logan, where they have more service.”
Worcester’s improvements might not be enough to overcome accessibility and other issues, said airline industry analyst Mike Boyd, president and CEO of Boyd Group International.
JetBlue’s presence in Worcester means the airliner is committed to being a major player in the state, Boyd said, but others aren’t as likely to join.
“There are only three major network carriers that would have potential for connective flights to ORH: American, Delta and United,” Boyd said, using Worcester’s official code name. “Two of these have come and gone, and even with a CAT III, it is not likely they’re coming back.”
Small airport advantages
Establishing new routes can cost up to $80 million, so airports serving larger communities have an advantage, said Harteveldt, the travel industry analyst. Yet, as larger airports become congested, more airlines consider serving smaller regional airports.
Carriers may target smaller airports if they find their customers live in that area, or because the convenience of the nearer location allows it to charge more than it does at a larger airport. Worcester Regional Airport estimates 80 percent of its passengers come from Worcester or its bordering towns.
Weather was never expected to be much of an obstacle for the airport, which opened in the 1940s on a former National Guard drill field. Consultants predicted within a decade, flying would be available all weather, with visibility having little impact on flights.
Davis, the Worcester airport director, said the CAT III system will help with Worcester’s historical challenge of holding onto airlines. The Boston Globe reported in 2013 that 15 percent of flights were canceled or diverted over safe landing concerns in JetBlue’s first month of Worcester service. Worcester offered financial incentives to JetBlue when the airliner began flying to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in 2013. City, state and federal funds totaled more than $1 million but have expired for those routes, Davis said.
New incentives will apply to JetBlue’s new JFK route.