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Ailing airport seeking its niche

Massport sees Worcester facility rebounding as skies get crowded

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 1, 2010

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When the Massachusetts Port Authority takes possession of Worcester Regional Airport from the City of Worcester on July 1, it will be inheriting a debt-ridden operation in need of improvement. Runways need repaving, the landing system doesn’t allow planes to land in the lowest levels of visibility, hangars are outdated, and the road to the 64-year-old airport winds through five miles of city streets.

But Massport, which operates Logan International Airport in Boston and has run the Worcester airport for a decade, says the facility will be an asset as demand for air travel increases and the number of airports and runways remains the same.

“I would say it’s a diamond that’s half-polished,’’ said Andrew Davis, who has managed the facility for Massport for 18 months. “We see an opportunity to develop this airport further.’’

The $17 million sale, a combination of land transfers and $14.4 million in cash payments, was part of the overhaul of the state’s transportation system. State officials want the airport to be improved so it can attract more business to the region, and they know the authority is better equipped to make it happen than the City of Worcester, Massport spokesman Richard Walsh said.

“The state recognized that we had the resources and expertise to manage the airport,’’ he said.

The transaction is awaiting approval from the Worcester City Council, the Worcester Regional Airport Commission, the Massport board, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Worcester airport is served by a sole commercial airline, Direct Air, which flies a few times a week to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Fort Myers and Orlando in Florida.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the airport had four carriers — including Delta Connection, American Eagle, and US Airways Express — and at its peak, in 1989, it served about 354,000 passengers.

In 2009, however, fewer than 50,000 people passed through the airport.

Massport would like to attract more airlines, but the authority’s initial effort will be to promote general aviation, Davis said — namely providing services for corporate jets and planes carrying sports teams.

“I think a lot of the focus is on trying to put this airport on the map,’’ he said.

With four major airports within about an hour’s drive of Worcester — in Boston, Windsor Locks, Conn., Manchester, N.H., and Warwick, R.I. — passengers have plenty of options. But there are about a million people who live closer to the Worcester airport than to any other, said Tim DeSantis, a former cochairman of the Worcester Regional Airport Commission.

“It’s a very much underutilized facility,’’ he said, adding that, with Massport’s ownership, the airport will be in better hands. “The city has no business trying to run an airport.’’

And though demand for air travel dropped, it is starting to creep back up and is expected to keep rising.

“One thing people don’t realize is, certainly in New England, there will never be another airport built,’’ DeSantis said. “You are not going to go into a densely populated area and claim a couple hundred acres of land and clear it to build an airport.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.