Stewart Airport prepares for takeoff (again) (2023)

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Hudson Valley // Travel

New incentives for carriers, potential tourism bump could boost traffic after hard year

Stewart Airport prepares for takeoff (again) (11)

The past year was not a good time to be in the airline business. Although vaccination rates today are rising and travelers are returning to the skies, New York Stewart International Airport (SWF) has a long way to go to recovery after the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing,” says Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Aviation Director Huntley A. Lawrence, “is that no small airport or community has escaped the impacts of COVID-19. Many airports have lost all of their air service. It’s been a real challenge as the airline industry has seen significant losses in their traffic in the past year.”

Stewart Airport saw a 90 percent reduction in total passengers and a 64 percent drop in the number of flights taking off in December 2020 compared to the same period the previous year, according to the Port Authority’s traffic report. Though the report didn’t quantify the financial impact during this period, Airlines for America (A4A), an organization that advocates on behalf of airlines, reported that U.S. airline operating revenues fell 62 percent from the first quarter 2019 to the first quarter 2021. At its lowest point, the A4A says, passenger volumes were down 96 percent, to a volume not seen since the 1950s, before the dawn of the jet.

The airfield at Stewart actually dates back to 1930 when aviation buff Archie Stewart donated 220 acres of land to the city of Newburgh. Used for cadet flight training, the airfield became Stewart Air Force Base in 1948 before expanding steadily as a commercial airport over the years. By 2017, Stewart welcomed its first-ever transatlantic arrival, a Norwegian Air flight from Edinburgh, Scotland.

At its peak in 2018, Stewart was home to five passenger airlines and contributed $426 million in economic activity to the region. That translated to 2,390 total jobs and $142 million in annual wages.

But the airport has lost three of those five carriers in two years, and one of the two remaining airlines — American Airlines — suspended service for a period during the pandemic. Norwegian Airlines, which offered affordable nonstop flights to Ireland from Stewart (roundtrips were in the $370 range) initially suspended flights in March 2019 because the Boeing 737 MAX planes it used in these routes were grounded globally due to two deadly crashes. They attempted to continue operating service with replacement aircraft, but ultimately said that the routes were no longer commercially viable. (Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s plea to Aer Lingus to restore international flights to the airport has so far gone unheeded.)

Jet Blue and Delta also ended flights from Stewart last year amid the pandemic. Delta does not have a date to resume service, but says they are continuously monitoring demand trends with plans to rebuild their network. Jet Blue has also not said if and when they will resume flights out of Stewart.

(Video) RAW VIDEO: Jet With Rapper Post Malone, Entourage Make Emergency Landing At Stewart Airport

American is operating just one route right now, flying once daily to Philadelphia, and Allegiant offers only seasonal flights when people are likely to travel for holidays or over the spring and summer. From Stewart, Allegiant flies twice weekly to Orlando and St. Petersburg in Florida, and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; the airline will resume service to Punta Gorda, Fla., in June. The airline also recently added service to Savannah, Ga., beginning May 26 in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Stewart Airport prepares for takeoff (again) (12)

Opportunities for Stewart’s future

Though the Port Authority, which manages Stewart Airport, has yet to release airport employment data for 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the air transportation industry, which includes both passenger and cargo transport, lost 26 percent of its workforce in the pandemic year, going from a high of 518,500 jobs in March 2020 to a low of 383,200 jobs in June that year. It has since rebounded to 419,000 jobs in April, though 2021 numbers are preliminary.

Federal aid has helped keep many in the airline industry employed despite a drop in passenger travel, which is still down roughly 36 percent compared to levels before the pandemic. In March 2020, passenger airlines received $50 billion in pandemic relief, split evenly between loans and payroll grants. Another $15 billion in payroll funding came in December, and President Biden’s relief bill this year provided an additional $14 billion to airlines and $9 billion for airports. Of this latest round of aid, Stewart Airport received $2.3 million for operations, personnel, cleaning, sanitizing, and debt service payments, among other things.

Many returning employees, including pilots, are still undergoing retraining and recertification processes, suggesting that a return to normal on employment levels is still a ways off.

The fact that airline employees are being called back is a good sign of the overall economy, but in the case of Stewart, there may be more reasons to be optimistic. Airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann notes that Stewart has gotten some of its initially canceled service back, and this trend may continue as summer leisure traffic volumes recover. He also likened the potential of the Hudson Valley to California’s wine country in terms of its ability to draw non-local tourists to the area by plane.

“There’s lots of draw in the Hudson Valley. But it will take a fair amount of effort, both by the state and the Port Authority. It’s an unexploited situation and these things bear fruit over time,” he says.

But the biggest determinant of Stewart’s future success hinges on when New Yorkers go back into the office — and fly for work again. “A critical factor will be the return of business travel,” he says. “So many secondary and tertiary airports only had services because of the business traveler.”

Stewart is also considered a “Reliever Airport,” an airline industry term for a regional airport that provides relief to congested and pricey air travel in major cities. The problem with this model is that airlines don’t like to split demand, but with business travel down by roughly 50 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels, there is less demand, period.

Stewart Airport prepares for takeoff (again) (13)

Enter three key Port Authority initiatives

This spring the Port Authority announced several initiatives that they say will re-energize the airport, including an incentive program to attract carriers, a new marketing campaign, and a state-of-the art customs facility, which added 20,000 square feet of space to the existing terminal and also allows additional screening.

To attract more airlines to the airport, Stewart is offering airport fee waivers and marketing support for 24 months for any carrier that begins new nonstop service to any destination that is not currently served from Stewart. This is not a new concept — smaller airports often use this, and Stewart itself offered one before — but the new program incorporates guidance from a consultant for best practices in the industry. Lawrence would be happy with any existing airline that adds new routes to the airport, but “what I would love to see,” he says, “is one of these new start-up airlines like Breeze or others make Stewart airport a focus city.”

The new marketing campaign, focused on both the airline industry as well as consumers through targeted digital advertising and social media, also includes a new logo featuring a modern-looking apple, which was selected to convey the airport’s proximity to apple country and New York City. They’re also working with local tourism partners and area attractions to raise awareness of Stewart as a viable travel option.

Hudson Valley Tourism President Amanda Dana points out that growth at Stewart has to come both from attracting more customers in the region who are looking to travel to the destinations that Stewart serves, as well as attracting more tourists to the Hudson Valley.

“People already view New York City as a destination,” she says, “so one way to do this is to highlight how close and easy it is to travel an hour north of the ‘Big Apple’ and get an incredible experience.”

She also recommends marketing the region to other parts of the country, especially a city in the southeast that Stewart already services, particularly during prime travel times for those areas like July through October. “This [would] align very nicely with the Hudson Valley vacation season where we experience an uptick in visitors.”

(Video) Take-off from Stewart Airport NY to Reykjavik/Keflavic Iceland August 5th 2022 Play Airlines

Dana adds that the booming local film industry has the potential to boost airport use, too. “Many west coast productions are considering the Hudson Valley for their next film, and many top producers directors and actors live in the Los Angeles area.It would be a great asset to have a direct flight to New York Stewart.”

Stewart Airport prepares for takeoff (again) (14)

Pent-up demand, cargo could boost recovery

Interest in air travel in recent weeks has picked up, with the number of daily passengers steadily surpassing one million for a 706 percent increase in air travel compared to this time last year. “People are ready to go out and enjoy their time with their families and they are ready to go on vacations,” Lawrence says.

Increased demand is one reason to be bullish on Stewart Airport, but another post-pandemic consideration is the fact many people have decided to leave congested areas like New York City and move to the Hudson Valley — and more residents could mean more travelers at Stewart.

“We know there was an influx of new residents into the county, like the increase post-9/11,” says Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus, “However, it will be awhile before we’ll be able to quantify this growth.”

Neuhaus also noted that Stewart is important not only for air passengers but also cargo. Cargo makes up a significant percentage of business at the airport with companies like FedEx, DHL and UPS shipping oversized freight, express packages and livestock on regularly scheduled flights. Domestic freight was up nearly 17 percent in December of 2020 from the same period last year, when it shipped nearly 23,000 tons of freight according to the Port Authority's 2019 airport traffic report. (LaGuardia, by example, shipped less than 7,000 tons in 2019).

Stewart’s optimal location — at the intersection of the New York State Thruway (Interstate 87) and Interstate 84 — makes it very attractive for cargo companies and this business could grow, says Mann. Freight going to Rockland County, Connecticut, or the Hudson Valley is better off arriving in Stewart rather than JFK, the region’s major cargo hub, he says, because it’s much less congested both in terms of air traffic and surface roads.

The opening of Legoland, the state’s first major amusement park and adjacent hotel, located in Orange County, is also expected to bring in new travelers.

“Stewart Airport can and will be a success,” Neuhaus says. “With attractions in Orange County such as Legoland, Stewart can become a regional destination airport.”

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