Thursday, January 12, 2017

Editorial: Stewart International Airport doesn't need to waste more money

The first attempt to get $20 million to expand the U.S. Customs capacity at Stewart International Airport did not get far with the people who need to approve it, the Port Authority board of commissioners.

Perhaps there is still hope that at some future meeting the board might reconsider and spend what amounts to a rounding error in their budget but looms large in the Hudson Valley.

After all, this is not just wishful thinking. It is based on a real possibility, the news announced toward the end of the year that Norwegian Air had received the necessary federal permission to fly its new planes to the United States. And Norwegian, hoping to compete with low fares, knows that it will save money if it avoids expensive metropolitan area airports.

It already services those and has announced that it hopes to fly its new planes to Stewart, hoping to capture a part of the metropolitan New York market, and Providence, R.I., hoping to lure passengers who otherwise might fly out of Boston.

Since that initial announcement there has not been much coming from the people at Norwegian. They have made news in Europe with talk about filling in on some international routes that some other carriers have abandoned. Virtually all of the news concerning Norwegian Air includes Stewart as a likely, though not 100-percent-sure, destination.

Those who believe that Stewart has a better future need to be realistic. We have seen in the past how unrealistic expectations have led to disappointment and, in a more expensive fashion, unnecessary expansion.

Not that long ago those who run the airport doubled the size of the main parking lot and added an overflow lot down the road. So far, no vehicles have overflown and the main lot is rarely more than half full.

There has been a lot of investment in the runways, money that has been well spent. But it is unrealistic right now to talk about expanding a terminal and offering more amenities when there is never anything approaching a crowd these days, given the few flights that come and go.

The Port Authority and the airlines continue to treat Stewart as excess inventory, a place that is nice to keep up but not necessary for daily operations. None of the major airlines that keep a minimal presence here have even hinted at expansion and when things go wrong in the three metro airports, when runways need to be repaired or storms hamper operations, they never divert planes to Stewart.

Besides, the Port Authority faces a contentious and divisive multi-billion-dollar challenge with the impending replacement of the aging bus terminal on top of the usual disagreements over capital and operating budgets.

Customs officials have said they can handle international flights should they arrive on the schedule Norwegian has planned. For now, those who offer official advice on Stewart should abandon their usual "if we build it they will come" mentality and trade it for a much more realistic one - "Let them come and then we'll start building."

Norwegian has proposed a modest start and Stewart should respond modestly as well.


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