2 Scrappy Airline Startups Are Sparking a Unlikely War Between New Haven and Hartford Airports
Startups Breeze Airways and Avelo Airlines are competitors, shaped by small fleets and point-to-point schedules. That competition is now sparking a battle in the relatively sleepy aviation state of Connecticut, where two airports just 56 miles apart, Hartford and New Haven, are being pitted against one another over expansion demands from the two carriers.
Connecticut’s population is about 3.6 million. It has long supported Hartford’s Bradley International, which has 42 non-stop destinations that include Los Angeles and San Francisco. Bradley had about 7 million 2019 passengers and is New England’s second-largest airport after Boston Logan. Historically, New Haven’s Tweed, which is managed by a private entity, has been little used, repeatedly tried and abandoned by major carriers, hampered by a short, 5,600- runway and by neighborhood opposition to expansion.
Breeze uses Hartford’s Bradley. Avelo uses Tweed New Haven Airport.
Kevin Dillon, CEO of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley, said, “If you start talking about an airline market the size of Connecticut, you need to be careful not to end up with two sick puppies, because you’re trying to spread it too thin.”
Breeze began serving Bradley on May 27, 2021, its first day of operation. Founder David Neeleman, a onetime New Canaan resident, said he considered Tweed but picked Bradley. “We felt Hartford was better,” he said. “Hartford is a big city. There are more people there.”
Neeleman said the two carriers don’t compete, planned expansion at Hartford indicates Breeze’s success, and Avelo expansion does not concern him. Neither airline’s frequencies are high. “It’s just a few days of flying (each week),” he said. For Breeze, the commitment to Connecticut represents 10 of 70 total routes. Breeze has five bases and serves 28 cities.
Flying 126-seat Airbus A220s and Embraer E-Jets with up to 118 seats, Breeze serves Charleston, S.C; Columbus, Norfolk and Pittsburgh from Bradley. In June, Breeze intends to add six destinations: Nashville, Akron; Savannah, Richmond, Jacksonville, and Sarasota — all with less than daily service, although Charleston goes to daily on May 1.
Flying 147-seat Boeing 737-700s, Avelo began serving Tweed in November. It serves six Florida destinations. Frequencies range from daily Orlando to thrice weekly Sarasota. In May, Avelo intends to add seven more routes, including Baltimore-Washington, Charleston, and Nashville.
Each of Avelo’s served and announced destinations is already served from Hartford, by one or more of these five carriers: Frontier JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit, as well as Breeze.
Tweed, on the other hand, has an unusual management structure. Longtime operator, Avports LLC is owned by a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. Avports wants to finance a $70 million expansion under a 43-year airport lease agreement with the airport authority, The New Haven Register has reported.
In September, New Haven city officials approved the deal, which would include a runway extension to 6,635 feet.
Travis Christ, Avelo’s head of marketing, said route selection is not based on competition with airlines or airports. Rather, “You fly were people want to go,” he said. “They want to go to the same places. We don’t think that’s any surprise.
“Florida was an obvious first choice, and through the pandemic Florida got even better,” Christ said. “It was already the number-one destination from the Northeast. Many people moved there, a lot of people have second homes and there was so much coming and going.
“For us, it was about New Haven and that kind of catchment area never having had convenient service, which is a function of the runway length,” he said. “Only a few types of aircraft can make use of that runway, and if you wanted to get low fares, the challenge has been even more difficult.”
Hub carriers have tried repeatedly to make Tweed work. As recently as 1996, United flew 737s to Chicago, while Continental, United and US Airways flew turboprops to Newark, Washington Dulles, and Philadelphia respectively, according to the New Haven Register. In its last effort to serve Tweed, American resumed New Haven-Philadelphia in January 2021, then cancelled in September 2021.
Avelo’s solution to the short runway problem is to use 147-seat 737-700s. The airplane is small enough that departure weight is not an issue, but big enough to avoid small plane/high seat-cost economics. At its Burbank base, Avelo flies 189-seat 737-800s.
Christ said New Haven’s catchment area has some overlap with Hartford, but “The catchment areas are not identical.” For parts of Southwestern Connecticut, getting to Hartford is tougher than getting to LaGuardia or White Plains, he said. Additionally, Bradley serves Western Massachusetts as well as Connecticut.
With more airplanes on the way, Avelo plans additional expansion at Tweed, but Christ declined to specify routes.
Dillon of the CAA said, “When you have unconstrained development of air service (at Tweed) it’s going to necessarily compete with Bradley. The airports are an hour from each other.”
New Haven officials “are talking about an agreement that would turn over operations of the airport to Avports, (which has) a profit motive,” Dillon said. “We anticipate that because of their investment for runway expansion, Avports would look to extract significant levels of revenue out of the airport.
“If Avelo continues to be the lone carrier at Tweed, if it continues on in the current business model, that’s a sustainable level of competition,” Dillon said. But vast expansion “spells a lot of trouble for Bradley and the Connecticut region,” he said, because airports require a critical mass of passengers to attract major carriers.
Jeffrey Cohen, a finance professor at the University of Connecticut, said that historically competition between the two Connecticut airports has been limited because Tweed has had few flights. “I think Avelo will draw some passengers (to Tweed) who had been going to Bradley,” he said. “It gives more options in terms of timing and in the choice of airlines.
Cohen noted that he recently flew Avelo from New Haven to Fort Lauderdale. Tweed is “an interesting airport,” he said. A drive from Hartford uses two interstate highways, but then “You drive through a residential neighborhood, very well kept up with nice, well-manicured yards, and then all of a sudden there’s the airport.
“It’s not what you would expect to have a neighborhood around an airport,” he said. “There are barriers to development that need to be addressed.”Subscribe Now to Airline Weekly