Looking for quiet? Worcester airport might be the place
WORCESTER — The cavernous airport terminal on the top of Tatnuck Hill is airy, modern, and eerily quiet. No one was standing behind the flight ticket counter on a recent weekday, the gift shop was dark, and the terminal’s expansive polished floor didn’t have a scuff on it.
Upstairs, a passenger was having a hard time finding a cocktail. And outside on the tarmac, planes were few and far between on the airport’s sprawling 1,300 acres.
“There’s been bobcat sightings,” said airport director Andrew Davis.
The Worcester Regional Airport is a bit lonely, like a big dinner party attended by just a handful of guests. Only two commercial flights — operated by JetBlue Airways since November 2013 — take off and land each day. These flights, from Worcester to Florida, represent the latest hope for an airport that has tried, and mostly failed, to maintain and expand commercial service for years.
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which bought the airport from the city of Worcester in 2010, runs it at a $4 million annual deficit, subsidizing it with its earnings from busy Logan International Airport in Boston, which was used by more than 33 million passengers last year. But Thomas P. Glynn, Massport’s chief executive, said he still sees promise in the airfield; more than 120,000 people flew in and out of Worcester airport last year.
“It’s a reasonable investment,” Glynn said, “with some reasonable chance of a return.”
For now, though, only one of the airport’s six terminal gates is in use, and the amenities found at other airports are noticeably lacking. Anne Geissler of Natick, on her way to a Florida vacation recently, said she got a great bargain on a round-trip ticket, and parking cost just $7 a day, compared with $29 a day at Logan.
But she learned one lesson: Don’t arrive at the terminal too early in the morning.
“It was all dark, and the entrance was locked,” Geissler said. “We had to knock on the door.”
At its peak in the late 1980s, the Worcester airport hosted five airlines and served about 350,000 passengers annually, but the deregulation of the airline industry allowed airlines to drop less profitable routes at small airports like Worcester.
The airport has gone long stretches without any commercial service, including three years from 2002 to 2005, and two years from 2006 to 2008, and most recently from March 2012 until JetBlue’s arrival in November 2013.
The Worcester airport has long struggled to overcome natural disadvantages, including its location on the western edge of the city, making it that much farther away from Boston and Providence. Getting to the Worcester airport from any direction requires navigating a labyrinth of city streets and residential neighborhoods.
From Interstate 290, drivers must travel stop and go through more than a dozen city intersections, past grocery and toy shops, pizza parlors, and package stores. From the Mass. Pike, off Route 146, drivers heading to the airport must manage the chaos of Kelley Square, where seven roadways converge into an incomprehensible morass of cars.
Roberta Schaefer, the former executive director of the Worcester Municipal Research Bureau, a public policy think tank, said the location of the airport was helped along by Harry G. Stoddard in the 1940s, when the wealthy and powerful industrialist, who lived in an exclusive neighborhood on Worcester’s west side, bought an airplane.
Stoddard, a folkloric character in Worcester history, wanted an airport closer to his home. “So now we’re stuck with this airport in the middle of nowhere,” Schaefer said.
When Massport took ownership of the ailing airport, it was served by Direct Air, which offered limited flights to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Florida. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, leaving thousands of passengers stranded at the peak of spring break travel season.
A year later, Massport persuaded JetBlue to fly out of Worcester, sweetening the pot with nearly $500,000 in subsidies for the service. The subsidies expired this year, but the airline will remain in Worcester because it is succeeding, Glynn said.
The airport, which employs 113 people, including those of charter airline Rectrix Aviation, has powerful allies. Former lieutenant governor Timothy Murray, a Democrat and now chief executive of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, has fiercely advocated for it.
Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, a Republican of nearby Shrewsbury, has also been a booster.
US Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, said he has won more than $10 million in federal funding for airport improvements since 2008 and that “great cities . . . deserve great airports.”
“What’s the alternative to supporting it, to walk away from it?” McGovern said. “We’re not building new airports anywhere. It is worth trying to make it work.”
Last September, McGovern announced $2.7 million in federal funding for a new taxiway allowing planes a wider turnaround. A month later, he appeared with public officials to break ground on a $30 million landing system that will allow planes to land at the airport in virtually all weather. The Federal Aviation Administration contributed $10 million of the system’s $30 million cost, with the rest funded by Massport.
The new landing system will address visibility issues at an airport that sits 1,000 feet above sea level and can be prone to foggy conditions. Glynn said it would make Worcester as attractive as Logan to business people if the airport could offer shorter flights to airline hubs in other cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, or Washington D.C.
Michael Angelini, chairman of the Worcester law firm Bowditch & Dewey, and chairman of Massport’s board since 2014 said Worcester’s landing system upgrade was essential to more reliable service.
Ultimately, Angelini, added, the Worcester airport’s day will come. Logan will reach a saturation point, and carriers will look west. But for now, he said, keeping the airport open “is a judgment call.”
“And in my judgment, it’s the right call,” he said.
Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the beginning of Michael Angelini’s term as chairman of Massport and his position at Bowditch & Dewey.