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U.S. Airways To End Its Service In Groton

Groton — U.S. Airways Express – the largest and most established commercial carrier serving the Groton-New London Airport – will suspend its services there beginning in September, frustrating some commuters and delivering a financial blow to the airport and the region's economy.

“Obviously, I'm not happy about it,” said the airport's manager, Catherine Young. “It's our commercial air service that's the most well known and they've been here for a long time. It will definitely make a difference.”

U.S. Airways Express is owned by the Arlington,Va.-based airline U.S. Airways, which serves 195 airports, mostly in the United States, and is the nation's seventh-largest air carrier. The company subcontracts with the Wichita, Kan.-based Air Midwest Airline, Inc. to operate its service out of Groton-New London. Four flights daily run from the airport to Philadelphia, one of U.S. Airways' major hubs.

For travelers, the withdrawal takes away a local convenience. Gina Cary of Mystic, took the 3:33 to Philadelphia Thursday on her way to North Carolina, having discovered the airport after flying from Providence several times. “I was hoping they'd make this airport bigger,” she said.

The airline's decision to pull the service came with little fanfare or explanation. In a letter dated June 3 to the state's commissioner of transportation, Air Midwest Airline simply said it would be withdrawing its service as of Sept. 6.

“There's nothing,” said Young, pointing to the letter. “This is what we have to go by.”

Young said that officials at the airport in Philadelphia had decided not to serve and support the type of plane – a Beech 1900 – that the airline uses on the route. The Beech 1900 is an older, twin-propeller plane with 19 seats that has “outlived its use,” Young said.

As with older cars, Young noted, maintenance on older airplanes is increasingly expensive, and pilots are also keener to fly newer, more sophisticated machines.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Airways said Thursday she could not discuss the specifics of the airline's decision, saying the number of passengers using the airline is proprietary information.

“This is an economic decision,” said Amy Kudwa, speaking for the company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and is now in the process of reorganizing. “We're always looking at our route network and matching our supply and demand.”

The airline will continue to serve Bradley International Airport in Hartford and Tweed New Haven Airport, the two other airports it serves in Connecticut. The airline also will continue to run flights out of T.F. Green Airport in Providence.

“I guess you'd have to say U.S. Airways is abandoning Groton-New London,” said John Markowicz, director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region a not-for-profit economic development group serving New London County, and a member of the state Transportation Strategy Board.

“The airport is an asset to the region and it would certainly be a larger asset if it had the ability to move more people,” Markowicz added.

According to the state's Department of Transportation, the withdrawal of the airline decreases the airport's revenue by 7 percent. In landing fees and rent, the airline paid a total of $18,955 to the airport every year.

“We'll look for ways to make that up,” said Mark Daley, the chief of fiscal and administrative services for the department's Bureau of Aviation and Ports, adding, “We don't like to see the loss of the service for the area. I know it's a tough thing for the airport to have to deal with, but the airlines are in such tough economic times.”

So far, though, Daley said, those tough economic times haven't yet affected Connecticut's other airports, at least in terms of airline withdrawals. “At Bradley, we haven't seen cutbacks at all,” Daley said.

“At Groton, the passenger demand probably had a lot to do with it,” Daley finished. “Proximity to T.F. Green probably played a big role as well.”

Business travelers made up the bulk of people using the service, according to Young, the airport manager. But some major local companies said the stopping of the service would not affect them. Both Electric Boat and Pfizer Inc., for example, have their own corporate jets at the airport.

It's other business commuters and travelers who will feel the impact. “I know there are a number of business people who would love to have better access,” said Cynthia Clegg, president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. “It would be so much more convenient to be five minutes from home.”

“Part of the issue for this region is easy access to air travel, and with traffic on 95, I think it's a shame they're doing this,” Clegg added. “I think it needs to be a whole part of our strategic view of transportation, in looking where we are, and where growth will be and what assets we have.”

The economic ramifications could be more serious than the transportation ones. “From an overall economic picture it's certainly counterproductive,” said Markowicz. “From an overall perspective on traffic it will have a minimal impact.”

On a busy day, the airport can have between 100 and 400 landings, but the effect of the withdrawal of U.S. Airways, even though the company lands only four planes a day, will likely trickle into other support business.

“We're disappointed,” Young said, “but on the other hand, it could mean we get some new planes.”

In June, U.S. Airways announced that it had ordered a fleet of new regional jets from two airline manufacturers, but would not say whether those new jets could make their way here.

In the meantime, Young is looking at the positives. In June, the airport began hosting another airline, Pan-Am's Clipper Connection, with flights to Baltimore, Manchester and Portsmouth, N.H., and Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.

“We're excited about that,” Young said.

In the meantime, she is encouraging anyone who relies on the U.S. Airways services to contact the company to register a complaint. The address to do that is: U.S. Airways Inc., 2345 Crystal Drive, Crystal Park 4, Arlington, Va. 22227. The telephone number is: (703) 872-7000.
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