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As Worcester Airport Adds Flights, Challenges Remain

Worcester Regional Airport, in 2014.
Creative Commons / commons.wikimedia.org
Worcester Regional Airport, in 2014.

The Worcester Regional Airport will see JetBlue begin daily service on Thursday to New York's JFK Airport. And this fall, American Airlines will add a daily flight from Worcester to Philadelphia. 

But big challenges remain for the airport -- a facility with a long history of operating losses, weather delays and few regular flights. Reporter Lisa Eckelbecker has been covering this story for the Telegram & Gazette newspaper. 

Lisa Eckelbecker, Telegram & Gazette: In the late '90s, early 2000s, the city of Worcester was experiencing deficits in running Worcester Airport. It realized it just didn't have the know-how.

It brought the Massachusetts Port Authority in to operate the airport. And then, about a decade later, it actually sold the airport to Massport.

Remember, Massport also owns and operates Logan International Airport in Boston. The hope was that Logan would have the financial resources to do capital improvements that the airport needed, but that it would also have the leverage with commercial airlines that was necessary to draw them to put flights into Worcester Airport.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Worcester Regional Airport is still operating in the red. Do JetBlue and American Airlines really hold the future of the airport in their hands?

This is a difficult question. When I asked Massport about the financial numbers, they will tell me that their mission is two-fold: it's about running all of these operations that they have, but it's also about promoting economic development in Massachusetts.

And so they say they are willing to accept these losses. They say, in fact, that they planned for a $100 investment in Worcester Regional Airport over a 10-year period, and that includes the operating losses.

Would they like to get to break even on this airport? Absolutely. But I don't think that they are pushing for that right now, and it seems pretty clear that they need more flights in order for that to happen.

Talk to me a little bit about the location of the Worcester Regional Airport. It’s on a hill.

Sure. The Worcester Regional Airport sits on a hilltop. It's about a thousand feet above sea level. It's on the western edge of Worcester, sort of on the Leicester town line. It's not exactly easy to get there. There is no highway that goes right to it [or] has an exit into the airport. You have to take city roads and that makes it a little bit tricky to get there.

In the past, it has had problems with fog. Because it sits high above sea level, higher than other parts of the city, it can become susceptible to fog.

Massport has recently installed a $32 million instrument landing system that should make it possible for planes to land with instruments only. And the notion is then that fog wouldn't matter. It wouldn't delay flights, because planes could come in and out with their instruments only.

The issue of the road is maybe a longer-term issue for the airport, according to people I've spoken to. In the past, there were studies that looked at whether some kind of new access road should be built to make it easier to get to the airport. That raised a lot of concerns in the nearby neighborhoods, particularly over whether some houses might be taken to ease this accessibility issue. This is not a problem right now with only a few flights, but I talked to people who said that maybe in the future they will have to reevaluate access to the airport.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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