Bradley International Airport looks to regain traffic as world emerges from COVID pandemic

Passenger traffic at Bradley International Airport through the first 11 months of 2020 was down 63% compared with the year before, with just more than 2.2 million people getting on or getting off airliners. In 2019, more than 5.6 million people had traveled through Bradley by the end of October, and the airport was on its way to drawing 7 million passengers in 2019, besting its 2018 mark of 6.7 million by more than 2%.

This year, in a sign of the times of life amid a global pandemic, Bradley used on-arrival COVID testing to boost traffic by travelers who’d otherwise have to quarantine.

The latest numbers are actually something of a recovery, as back in April and May the airport was running 90% or more behind its passenger traffic from the spring of 2019. They are not numbers that Bradley and the Connecticut Airport Authority can sustain long term even though airports in Boston and New York City were down 80% to 85% in star-crossed 2020.

Recovery, says Connecticut Airport Authority executive director Kevin A. Dillon, will be difficult. Airlines took a beating in 2020 with a net loss of $118.5 billion globally. They expect to face a net loss of $38.7 billion in 2021.

That means, according to Dillon, that when airlines emerge from the pandemic it’ll be slowly and with fewer aircraft and employees and also with a thirst for revenue.

“We know that the competition that existed pre-pandemic will only be more intense,” Dillon predicts.

Bradley depends on airlines’ willingness to deploy resources – flights, crews, ground personnel handling luggage and selling tickets, marketing money – to Bradley and the Hartford-Springfield market it serves.

“That’s where it’s going to be very, very important for us to continue the philosophy of differentiating ourselves from the airports in New York and from Logan,” Dillon says. “We feel we are positioned very well.”

Aer Lingus, which had been Bradley’s lone transatlantic flight prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, wants to resume flights from Connecticut to Dublin, according to Dillon. But that anticipated return date won’t be until the end of 2021 or into 2022.

“They would like to return as soon as possible,” he says. It wasn’t until September that Aer Lingus even had the legal ability to fly the route due to COVID restrictions, and international travel is still highly restricted.

To compete, Bradley must offer not just a good market of travelers but cheap operating expenses when it comes to renting space and fees for landing and taking off.

The Connecticut Airport Authority instituted a hiring freeze, pay cuts and cuts to operating expenses just to make it through 2020. The authority also deferred $20 million in capital projects, according to Dillon.

Bradley did continue as scheduled all year with work on its long-awaited ground transportation center, a $210 million project. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont hosted a ceremonial groundbreaking in July 2019.

The ground transportation center will have host all the rental-car operators, be a bus station and have the capability to expand into a rail transit hub someday in the future. Financed through a surcharge on car rentals at the airport, it’s still scheduled to be completed in May 2022.

There have been bright spots for Bradley. COVID-19 testing for travelers has been popular as it facilitates travel without quarantining.

The Connecticut Airport Authority and Hartford HealthCare also ran a drive-through COVID-19 testing site for Connecticut residents who were not traveling. The idea was to keep the general public, especially if they were exposed or symptomatic, out of the terminal, Dillon says.

Bradley International Airport received the Airport Health Accreditation from Airports Council International World.

And Bradley had a banner year for freight traffic with Amazon, UPS, FedEX and DHL all up, according to Dillon. That happened industry wide with more folks ordering online.