Taking Off

andreas gottzmann racks up quite a few frequent-flyer miles, traveling to Germany on business, but getting to the gate is a hassle. With no flights to Europe from Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, the president and CEO of Süddekor, a German-owned company with offices in Agawam, treks to Logan International Airport six to eight times a year for travel to his firm’s design center in Düsseldorf. However, some of his European associates beg off stateside business trips, balking at flying to Boston or New York and then driving to western Massachusetts.

Destinations in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean have put the International in Bradley’s name, but trans-Atlantic service has eluded the Connecticut airport for nearly three decades. That gap comes to an end on July 1, when Northwest Airlines and partner KLM Royal Dutch Airlines begin daily nonstop service to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, opening up Bradley to 81 destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India.

“Obviously, we hope to attract people to Amsterdam per se, but it is more about, ‘You don’t have to torture yourself by driving to Boston or New York,’” says Phil Haan, the Northwest executive vice president who oversees the airline’s partnership with KLM. Gottzmann puts it this way: “It will help a lot of us here [to be able] to say, ‘OK, let’s go!’”

This trans-Atlantic connection is coming not a moment too soon, both for the Hartford area of Connecticut and for economically struggling western Massachusetts. Bradley is ideally situated to serve—and stimulate—the “knowledge corridor” that runs along I-91, stretching from the Vermont/ New Hampshire border to the Five Colleges area around Amherst and Northampton, the cities of Springfield and Holyoke, and, finally, Hartford and its suburbs. Much of the corridor is included in Bradley’s catchment area, defined as cities and towns within an hour’s drive of the airport. Bradley is located in Windsor Locks, Conn., 13 miles north of Hartford.

Airports with true international connections are conveyor belts for the global economy. As New England’s second largest airport, after Logan, Bradley is already a resource valued by people on both sides of the Connecticut border, contributing $2.5 billion to the regional economy. It’s also one that many are banking on to make this one of the top 25 economic centers in the US.

“Bradley is one of the very, very few major keys to the region,” says Mike Graney, senior vice president for business development of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (WMEDC). “Connectivity in a lot of ways is critical.”

It seems to be a good time for building an economy around a second-tier airport. Logan and other major airports are crowded, traffic-clogged, and bogged down with post-9/11 security, so mid-size airports are becoming popular with travelers. Lines at car-rental counters and security checkpoints are short, and parking is cheap and abundant.

All that’s true for Bradley, which placed sixth among airports serving fewer than 10 million passengers per year in the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 North America Airport Satisfaction Study. The attraction is access: a half hour or less from the Springfield area. Jeanne Young, vice president for global travel at the Springfield–based MassMutual Financial Group, says Bradley has zero traffic bottlenecks.

Even pilots appreciate Bradley. American Airlines captain Jeffrey Dill says the air-traffic controllers there are confident, forgiving, and alert; the arrival and departure times are straightforward, at least compared with the generally crowded Northeast Corridor; and the physical layout is spacious and uncomplicated. He thinks Bradley could easily handle more traffic and asks, “Has the time come to take market share away from New York and Boston?”

The answer to Dill’s rhetorical question is still unclear. Bradley has reached out to major corporate customers such as MassMutual (the Bay State’s largest company, with 6,000 employees in the cross-border region), but the airport has come late to an understanding of its own competitive advantages. “They could and should and now are managing it more strategically,” says Young.

Many observers blame the airport’s late arrival to this realization on its governance structure. Bradley is owned and operated by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, known as ConnDOT, and is one of just two state-run airports in the country. (The other is Maryland’s Baltimore/ Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.) Some say the airport is run more like a government bureaucracy than an entrepreneurial enterprise, resulting in fewer route options, outdated infrastructure, and a lack of shopping-mall services found at many US and overseas airports run by quasi-public entities or private management firms.

“The general feeling is that it’s sort of been a DC3 in an era of 757s,” says Tom Condon, editor of the Hartford Courant’s weekly “Place” section.

Bradley could jump-start the economy of a region artifically divided by a line on the map.

No matter what model of aircraft it resembles, Bradley is also a symbol of the potential, thus far unrealized, of interstate cooperation in a region artificially divided by a line on the map. With areas of western Massachusetts like the Pioneer Valley “seeking to break out of ongoing stagnation,” as Robert Nakosteen, executive editor of MassBenchmarks (a quarterly journal of the Massachusetts economy), recently put it, what happens in Greater Hartford, down the road, is likely to mean more than what happens in Greater Boston, across the state. And the best thing that could happen in Greater Hartford would be for Bradley to blaze a trail of commerce from the Pioneer Valley to Europe. But whether it will succeed in doing so is entirely in the hands of Connecticut officials.

Could Massachusetts get a representative on the airport’s governing board? Or could Bradley be put in the hands of an independent authority shared by the two states? Perhaps. But in Massachusetts, at least, neither option seems to be on the radar screen.

DUTCH TREAT

The lack of trans-Atlantic flights from Bradley hasn’t brought commerce to a screeching halt. The facility served 7.38 million passengers in 2005, setting an all-time record and surpassing its previous high of 7.34 million in 2000, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks decimated the industry. According to The New England Regional Airport System Plan, released by the New England Airport Coalition last fall, volume at Bradley will continue to rise, reaching 10 million passengers by 2020.

But that upward trend is not certain, in part because airlines have begun cutting back on flights from small and medium-sized airports during low demand periods. Some carriers are sending larger planes to service international flights in other markets, replacing them with smaller aircraft, thereby reducing the number of available seats. At Bradley, this trend caused a nearly 18 percent drop in seats, from 176,160 in June 2005 to 145,100 one year later. Overall, passenger traffic at Bradley dropped 4.9 percent in the first nine months of 2006, compared with the same period in 2005. Unless airport officials can convince airlines to stand pat at Bradley, fewer seats could send passengers scurrying for other options—at other airports.

Becoming a truly international airport could help Bradley compensate for fewer seats on domestic flights. It could also help close some business deals in the region. Some companies considering a move “specify that they must be within so much time of an international airport. That would keep us out of the running,” says Ellen Bemben, president of the Regional Technology Corp. in Springfield, an entity that encourages the growth and development of technology-based industries.

Are the links between Hartford and Amsterdam really strong enough to support daily flights?

However, the existing businesses in the area don’t log much overseas travel. Of MassMutual’s 1,000 frequent-flying employees, for example, 95 percent travel only domestically, says Young. That leaves some observers doubtful that Bradley can sustain a route to Europe. On USA Today’s “Today in the Sky” blog, a poster named Brett asserts, “Even with KLM connections/Europe feeder traffic at [Schiphol], I don’t see how [Bradley] is going to be a huge destination for Europeans or how [Bradley] will have enough local traffic to fill 160 daily seats.” Flightmapping.com, a Web site targeting British travelers, is also dubious: “How many passengers are there who want to fly point-to-point between Hartford…and Amsterdam?… Are business links between these two cities really strong enough to support daily flights between them?”

London is actually the top international destination for the business community in western Massachusetts, according to Allan Blair, president and CEO of the WMEDC. But flying into London’s Heathrow Airport is out of the question. That route is governed by the Bermuda II Treaty between the US and the United Kingdom, and until a new agreement is negotiated, American Airlines and United Airlines are the only US carriers permitted to fly into the world’s busiest international airport—although Bradley is pursing other options into the UK “pretty aggressively,” says Connecticut Aviation Administrator Stephen Korta.

MassMutual’s Jeanne Young says
the lack of traffic bottlenecks is a
major advantage for Bradley.

In the meantime, Bradley plans to spend up to $350,000 specifically promoting Northwest’s new route, and is waiving up to $235,000 in fees and other charges to the airline. For Northwest, the Hartford–Amsterdam route resembles the airline’s Portland, Ore.–Tokyo service, launched in 2004, that has appealed to a ready-made market of small Pacific Northwest firms with Japanese ties. Haan considers that service a success, and a model for European service out of Bradley. “We can always run a sale and let y’all go to Paris for a couple of hundred bucks, but that’s not a long-term sustaining business for us,” says Haan. Translation: What the airline wants are suits in seats.

Gottzmann, for one, is happy to oblige. The Süddekor president once worked for the German airline Lufthansa, and he says he’s happy to take a “hopper” from Amsterdam over to Düsseldorf, a 30-to-45-minute flight. Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch declined to provide advance bookings figures, but he claims they are meeting expectations. “We are getting a positive response from the business community,” he says.

COME TO LOW-COST NEW ENGLAND

Area business leaders see the new air service as key to building a European connection, which they say is, surprisingly enough, a natural. Lyle Wray, who heads the Hartford–based Capital Region Council of Governments, says western New England is an attractive place for German and Dutch companies to do business.

MetroHartford Alliance’s Sandra Johnson
says the cost of doing business in western New
England is a bargain compared with Europe.

“When you look at businesses expanding, they feel pretty comfortable when they have a straight shot home,” Wray says. “[They] see us as a low-cost, cheap place to do business compared to home, which is not how Americans see us.”

When American firms look to cut costs, they head to the South or to offshore locations like China or India. With the exodus of domestic firms, the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment made a strategic decision in 2003 to seek foreign direct investment. And it seems to be paying off. Last year, Massachusetts ranked 11th in the country for the total number of in-sourced jobs, with at least 191,000 workers in foreign firms, or more than 6.5 percent of the private sector workforce.

And when Europeans look at western New England, they see a bargain in the cost of doing business and the cost of living compared with the Continent. “There is no sticker shock for a European company in New England,” says Sandra Johnson, vice president and business development officer for the MetroHartford Alliance, which is planning to host a group from the German Consulate in New York during the first quarter of this year.

The Dutch and the Germans were the third and fourth largest foreign investors in the United States in 2004 after the British and the Japanese. According to a German agency headquartered in the US (the Representative of German Industry and Trade), Massachusetts ranked 13th in employment by US affiliates of German-owned firms in 2003, providing 16,300 total jobs with 2,800 in manufacturing. Connecticut ranked 18th with 15,300 total jobs and 7,500 manufacturing positions.

Having a large pool of qualified workers may also make the area attractive to foreign firms.

If cost is not a paramount issue, explains Marius Carstensen, president of the German-American Business Council of Boston, having a large pool of qualified people to choose from is an important factor in location, along with more flexible working conditions, contacts with other established German firms, proximity to American customers, and ease of contact with the home office in terms of time zones and travel. That package makes this area attractive for German firms, says Carstensen. There are 17 German firms in the Hartford metropolitan area, and of a sampling of 24 international firms in western Massachusetts, 10 are German.

Then there are the intangibles that, for some European businesspeople, make Massachusetts seem like home. “There are things that you have here that are more in common with Europe than with other parts of the US,” says Gottzmann.

Süddekor, which designs and prints decorative papers for flooring, countertops, and furniture, set up shop in western Massachusetts in the late 1990s. Today it employs 105 people between its Agawam offices and printing plant and its East Longmeadow paper treating facility. German companies, Gottzman says, are accustomed to recruiting university graduates and training them in-house according to industry standards. He finds that the region’s college and university graduates fill his engineering, chemistry, and information-technology needs.

HANDS ACROSS THE BORDER

If making Bradley pay off for them means working more closely with Hartford than with Boston, that would probably suit most people in western Massachusetts just fine. Shortly before the November election, the Western New England College Polling Institute asked area residents whether they got their fair share of representation in state political decision-making, and 68 percent said no.

The region’s business and economic-development leaders certainly see a more natural affinity between north central Connecticut and western Massachusetts than between I-91 and Route 128, an affinity that could make for a regional identity across state lines.

“When you are in a state like Massachusetts, with an internationally known city like Boston, and you aren’t within Boston’s sphere, developing your own sense of self around those issues of attractiveness and ambiance is very important,” says WMEDC’s Blair. “Bradley presents that opportunity for us in a way that few other things can.”

Wray calls the Springfield-Hartford connection “a real relationship” based, in part, on transportation links. And there are moves afoot to make more of them. Business and political leaders are hard at work on a proposed New Haven–Hartford–Springfield commuter rail line, which would have a shuttle bus to Bradley. Connecticut is already in the preliminary design and engineering phase and is prepared to invest $300 million initially in construction. Start-up costs for Massachusetts would be an estimated $30 million, with about $1 million in annual operating expenditures; the state’s Executive Office of Transportation is now reviewing the results of a feasibility study done by its neighbor’s counterpart, ConnDOT.

“There’s probably never been a more open or willing time to look at transportation, including Bradley, in a more regional way,” says Connecticut aviation administrator Korta.

Some say the Hartford-Springfield ties should be drawn tighter by means of a cross-state airport and development authority, sort of a “Mass/ConnPort.” During the Connecticut gubernatorial campaign last fall, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee, John DeStefano, called for just such an entity, funded by the two states, to expand and market the airport, negotiate with airlines, and lobby for commuter rail and other transportation improvements. (No such idea was broached in the Massachusetts governor’s race, however.) Regional business leaders are all for the idea.

A separate, but related, notion is to put Bradley under the control of an independent management authority. Today Bradley is a self-sustaining entity operating under the Bradley Enterprise Fund. The facility doesn’t receive a dime of Connecticut tax dollars, but instead makes do—very well, according to Korta—on airline and non-airline revenue from landing fees, parking concessions, and levies on private charters, restaurants, hotels, taxis, and limousine services.

But locally Bradley has long been considered an underperformer, with numerous studies over the last decade faulting its lackluster business development strategies and its failure to capitalize on the congestion at Boston and New York–area airports. An October 2006 Hartford Courant editorial, besides urging local economic development groups and state agencies to beef up marketing the airport to businesses, noted that there are thousands of acres of land near the airport that are ripe for development and would be more valuable with a busier Bradley.

The call for independent management of the Connecticut airport is a familiar refrain, but so far the idea has gone nowhere. A 2001 bill to create a strong independent board of directors ran into opposition in ConnDOT and Connecticut’s General Assembly. According to the Courant’s Condon, when the measure finally passed, it was with a board of directors so weakened that he calls it “a misuse of the term.”

Studies have faulted Bradley for not taking advantage of congestion in Boston and New York.

L. Scott Frantz, chairman of the Bradley Airport board of directors, says the board gets along with ConnDOT “quite well” but admits that it doesn’t have the teeth to make the will of the board a reality. State ownership does have benefits, he says, including “great talent” that takes care of everything from air operations to finance. But he acknowledges that decisions can get swallowed up by the ConnDOT bureaucracy, making it complicated to take initiative—to get someone “to pull the trigger,” he says.

However, Frantz rejects the suggestion that, under his board’s watch, Bradley has failed to market its brand. After 9/11, the board went into “survival mode” to keep the airport afloat, without cutting back on services or planned upgrades, he says. Over the next few years, the airport managed to keep a new terminal and concourse on track (it opened in 2003). By 2011, officials hope to move ahead with the demolition and first phase of construction to replace the Murphy Terminal, the oldest continuously operating terminal building in the country. Frantz also credits Kiran Jain, the airport’s marketing and route development director, whom he calls a “star in the industry,” with securing for Bradley a “valuable set of flights”—to such destinations as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and now Amsterdam.

Frantz says a seat on the board for someone representing western Massachusetts is not an unreasonable idea at all. But that, let alone a bistate authority, would require an act of the Connecticut Legislature. Connecticut state Rep. Tony Guerrera, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, doesn’t dismiss the idea out of hand, but neither does he endorse it. “One thing I’ve learned up at the Capitol—anything is possible,” he says. “It’s something that we’d almost have to have a roundtable [about,] in regards to the benefits for everyone, before we would invest in something like that.” (His Massachusetts counterpart, Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Yet Oz Griebel, MetroHartford Alliance president and CEO and former Bradley board member, says he doesn’t see a bistate authority gaining traction. “I don’t see who is the champion right now, [other] than a few of us on the business side.” From his vantage point, Griebel says, “When I was on the board, I, for one, was very supportive of having a designation for a Massachusetts representative [on the board]. That was not where the Legislature wanted to go.”

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Ultimately, whether Bradley can become an economic driver for western Massachusetts may depend on whether Connecticut and Massachusetts work together to make the facility the priority it would need to be.

“I think an overture needs to be made by the governor of Massachusetts to the governor of Connecticut to say, ‘Look, we share a common interest here. How can we work out something?’” says Blair, of WMEDC. “Inducing the political leadership in Massachusetts to understand that in western Mass., in western New England, Bradley is an engine just as Logan is in the east, and, therefore, we need to be aggressive and more assertive in helping to grow it, that’s a tough educational hill to climb.”