It's a plan that's been years in the making - the ribbon has been cut on the new Bradley Airport Transportation Center.
But what does it mean for air travel and Connecticut taxpayers? Are there even more improvements to come in the future?
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with Connecticut Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon about it.
Mike Hydeck: "So the new transportation center, as we know it's a $210 million project and until recently, our state budget, for decades, has been riddled with budget deficits. How much money in taxpayer dollars went into the project?"
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Kevin Dillon: "Absolutely none. This entire facility has been financed through rental car user fees. So we don't take tax revenue here at Bradley Airport as a matter of course. The airport has to balance its books based upon user fees, so rental cars are a big component of the user fee structure here at the airport. And this entire facility, which is costing $210 million, is being paid for completely through bonds that are backed by the rental car user fees."
Mike Hydeck: "How is the user, the customer, going to benefit from the new footprint?"
Kevin Dillon: "So it'll be a huge customer service improvement. Today, to get your rental car, as you know here at Bradley, you have to take a bus and go to a remote location. The rental car operations are scattered in and around the airport. Now once this facility opens, all of the rental cars will be housed under one roof. We'll have nine different brands located in that facility. And you can easily access it from the terminal building, you walk right from the terminal building into this facility. So you'll no longer have to take that bus to get a rental car here at Bradley. It also has a side benefit, a big environmental benefit, in that we're eliminating all of those bus trips, which eliminates about a quarter of a million trips per year. So not only is it a customer service improvement, it's a great environmental improvement as well."
Mike Hydeck: "So thanks to federal money, Bradley and many of the airlines flying in and out of our state, we're able just to stay afloat during the pandemic. Compare travel this year as we head into this very active summer, to the most concerning times early in the pandemic. What's the difference in travel?"
Kevin Dillon: "Well, leisure travel has really rebounded here at Bradley. We actually recovered a lot faster than most of the airports in the Northeast. Right now, on average, though, we're still down about 10% as compared to pre-pandemic levels. The majority of that 10%, though, is business travel. That is something that I think the industry is taking a long look at to see how quickly is that business travel going to recover. As you know, throughout the pandemic, people have gotten used to Zoom platforms in order to meet, so that could have a long-term impact on the return of business travel. But based upon the capacity that we see airlines putting into the airport here at Bradley, I'm very confident stating that I believe at the end of the fiscal year that we're currently in, we'll be back to those pre-pandemic levels. And then hopefully, we're going to start to grow Bradley again. As you know, prior to the pandemic, we were on a big growth trend for eight years. Eight consecutive years, we had significant passenger growth here at the airport prior to the pandemic."
Mike Hydeck: "Over the years, we've seen direct flights to certain cities come and go. We had one from Hartford to Denver that was here for years and then it disappeared. We have others that go to the Carolinas. They're here for a little while then disappear. Right now, we're in part of a cycle where we have a lot of new nonstop flights out of Bradley. Do you think they're going to stay? And what's the demand so far?"
Kevin Dillon: "I do. You know, the vast majority of our route network right now is leisure destination. Certainly Florida is always big every time we add a new Florida city. But cities like Charleston, Savannah that have been recently added, those also will serve that leisure market. What we keep an eye on is the traditional business destinations. You know, how well are we doing in Houston? How well are we doing in Chicago? That's where we need to see a little bit of recovery. Again, it goes back to that business travel issue. But I feel very confident that the route network that you see at Bradley here today is here for the future. And we're going to continue to add to that route network. There's still a lot of cities that we'd like to see service to."
Mike Hydeck: "One of the things that can make a huge difference for passengers and even not having to have a rental car would be rail service. Does that seem to be in the plan for years to come?"
Kevin Dillon: "Yeah, I mean, that's another big component of the ground transportation center. Certainly the rental cars take up a good portion of the footprint. But we're also looking to process high occupancy vehicle modes out of that facility as well. Up front, it'll be principally regional bus services. But we do anticipate down the road that we will have a light rail connection from the Hartford line directly into the airport and those passengers will be processed right at that facility, we've left an allowance for that. It's difficult to put a timeframe on when that will happen. A lot of that gets driven by the passenger growth that we're talking about. But you know, keep in mind prior to the pandemic, we were handling seven million passengers. I truly believe Bradley could be a 10 million passenger airport. So as you start to, you know, go beyond that seven million passengers, that rail connection becomes much more of a reality."