Albany International Airport wants more ways to get there from here
More routes, carriers sought as area growth adds traffic
COLONIE For more than 1.2 million travelers a year, Albany International Airport is where they pass through security scanners and then walk down boarding ramps, bound for other places.
And about as many people coming from other places arrive at Albany’s gates each year, head for the escalator and grab their bags off a carousel.
The region’s biggest airport is a busy place, and officials there are anticipating an increase in air travel demand as the high-tech companies coming to the Capital Region look for better connections to other technology centers around the world.
The Albany airport’s boardings were up about 2 percent from last year in the first quarter, after dropping a little each year — a total of 13 percent — since 2004.
“We think it’s indicative of the new business development in the region,” said Albany International Airport CEO John O’Donnell.
But it still isn’t easy to get from Albany to tech centers like San Jose, Portland, Ore., or Dresden, Germany, even though business leaders think the travel demand is there.
“The need is critical,” said F. Michael Tucker, president of the Center for Economic Growth in Albany. “Whether it be General Electric, GlobalFoundries, M+W Group or International Sematech, all have talked to us about the ability to get employees to and from the Capital Region efficiently.”
It’s a topic airport officials are discussing with both high-tech industry leaders and the airlines that serve Albany. Even though no upstate regional airport has direct flights to the West Coast, it’s still possible to make better connections, they said.
“We don’t have enough connections to the West Coast and not enough service to international destinations,” O’Donnell acknowledged.
Airport officials have made a priority of attracting a new airline like JetBlue, American or Frontier to join the list that includes Delta, Southwest, U.S. Airways, United and Continental. The merger of United and Continental is freeing up another gate, meaning Albany has two gates available for a new airline.
O’Donnell said he held 15 meetings with airlines in the past year to discuss new or expanded service.
“We are confident the airlines are aware of Albany’s role as a leader in nanotech and chip fab development. We are on the map, not only nationally but internationally. The future can only be described as positive,” said airport spokesman Doug Myers.
Attempts to increase service in Albany are happening against the background of recent history that has seen commercial aviation buffeted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, high fuel prices and a global recession. But despite those blows to airline profitability, the Federal Aviation Administration is predicting air travel will grow over the next 20 years.
For Albany, thoughts of growth mostly focus on the West.
Right now, people flying from Albany can get to destinations like San Francisco or Phoenix, but it requires one or more changes in busy hub airports such as Chicago’s O’Hare or Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson or in Washington. There isn’t even service to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, a major hindrance for international travelers.
To change that, Albany is investing. The airport has more than $2 million on the table in local or federal financial incentives for airlines to establish new services. Airport officials are conducting a customer survey that may help persuade the airlines that new routes are needed.
“We have to convince the airlines that new routes will be used,” O’Donnell said.
Last fall, the airport scored a $750,000 federal Small Communities Air Service Development grant, a grant that required the regional chambers of commerce and other businesses to come up with more than $500,000 in local matching pledges. That money could be used to subsidize the start of a new air service.
Chamber officials see it as a smart investment.
“Albany International Airport, from my perspective, is one of the significant drivers of economic opportunity,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
The Capital Region has a half-dozen small public airports that can handle private jets and a number of small airstrips, but Albany International Airport is the only airport with scheduled commercial service from national and regional airlines.
“The Albany airport is it, in terms of the ability to reach other destinations,” Shimkus said.
Business is becoming more international, Shimkus said, with even locally owned companies like Turbine Services Ltd. sending employees on overseas jobs, and the Saratoga chamber itself planning a trip later this year to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. GlobalFoundries, which has built the giant new computer chip plant in Malta, is owned by an Abu Dhabi government investment fund.
Airport officials, though, are focusing mostly on making it easier to reach the West Coast, though they acknowledge that there’s international demand.
“Our incentives are all targeted for the West Coast,” O’Donnell said. “There’s not an airport our size that has direct flights to the West Coast. We’re targeting Dallas, Houston and Denver as new destinations that will make it easier to reach the West Coast.”
The survey posted on the airport’s website asks the public to rank nine potential destinations Albany doesn’t serve directly, including San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles and Denver.
“The results of the survey will be used as a basis to alert airlines to the growing need for new or additional service through Albany,” said airport spokesman Myers.
People can take the survey online for about another week at www.flyalbany.com.
The results will be distributed to the organizations that are supporting development of new air service, including the Saratoga, Schenectady, Albany-Colonie and Rensselaer county chambers of commerce and the Center for Economic Growth.
O’Donnell thinks the airport’s travelers are split about evenly between business and leisure, but the survey should provide some more specific answers.
The new information will then be shared with airlines.
“The airlines are a sophisticated, market-driven industry,” said Tucker, of the Center for Economic Growth. “Part of the purpose of the survey is to demonstrate to the airlines that there are more potential markets.”
If longer-distance flights were established, Albany International has the capacity to handle them. There are 8,500-foot and 7,200-foot runways, which are long enough to handle any size airplane. Air Force One, a Boeing 747, has landed there three times in the past four years.
While looking to develop new service, the airport is spending $15 million on facility improvements this year, including replacing floors and carpets in the terminal building.
“Our focus is really on keeping the terminal in top condition, to maintain a high quality of traveler experience,” O’Donnell said.
Albany International Airport covers 1,100 acres between Albany-Shaker Road and Route 7 and is a major employment center in its own right, with 1,200 people working there.
In 2011, the airport saw more than 80,000 takeoffs and landings, most of them commercial passenger or cargo flights. Private planes and military activities made up the rest.
By one measure, Albany International is the oldest municipal airport in the United States. The city of Albany established a municipal airport in 1908, at a former polo field north of the city in Loudonville.
Land for the airport was bought from the Watervliet Shakers in 1928, and the airport has been there ever since, growing over the years even as suburban development has grown up around what was then farm fields.