Stewart loses carriers, but not vision

June 16, 2008 11:59:42 AM PDT
Stewart International Airport is on track to lose its second passenger carrier since April, undercutting efforts to create a bustling Hudson Valley air travel hub during a tumultuous time in the industry. AirTran Airways said Friday it would stop service at Stewart on Sept. 3 because of sharply higher fuel costs. The announcement came two months after Skybus Airlines filed for bankruptcy and ceased flights to the Orange County airport.

The double blow to Stewart comes as the airline industry struggles with high fuel prices and a slow economy. The loss of AirTran would reduce Stewart to four passenger carriers this fall - less than a year after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over the underutilized airport with promises to transform it into an alternative to the three major metropolitan airports.

Port Authority officials said Monday the current turmoil in the industry will not affect their long-term plan to pump $500 million into the airport over the next decade. The authority is still trying to land other domestic and international carriers and they are still talking to AirTran about staying, said authority spokesman Pasquale DiFulco.

"We know that this is a remarkably resilient industry. Stewart is key for us for providing greater capacity for the region," DiFulco said. "And we remain committed."

DiFulco said the projection that Stewart would handle about 900,000 passengers this year will be lowered. Stewart handled 284,982 in the first quarter of this year.

The authority - which runs metropolitan-area airports, bridges, tunnels and bus terminals - agreed last year to spend $78.5 million to assume a private company's lease to operate the former U.S. Air Force base through 2099. Stewart, about 60 miles north of New York City, is being groomed as a northern alternative to Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports.

Besides AirTran, passenger service at Stewart is now provided by JetBlue, Delta Connection, Northwest and US Airways Express.

Independent airline consultant Robert Mann of Long Island said the Port Authority is "swimming against the tide" in trying to increase service at Stewart when the airline industry is plagued with so many problems. But he also said the Port Authority, a public entity that plans years into the future, is well positioned to wait out cyclical downturns. He said that could take years.

"I think it's going to be tough sledding for a while," he said.

Still, DiFulco noted passenger figures are up from 2006. And there's evidence Hudson Valley residents are opting to fly from Stewart when good flights are available.

Travel agent Diana Presta of Anywhere Travel in New City, Rockland County, said her No. 1 airport for bookings is still Newark because of all the flights available. But she often books JetBlue flights to Florida out of Stewart because its easier for her customers to get there.

"They feel it's less of a hassle," Presta said. "It's a big plus."

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