It's time to revisit regional air travel

Our corner of the world can claim much expertise, although let's face it: We are not the nation's go-to people for driving distances. Everything is too far. Example: We here in the People's Republic of East Lyme need a CVS in Flanders because getting to the one in Niantic is a hassle.

They are 3.2 miles apart.

A straighter-than-a-clothesline drive down Route 161.

But when folks from outposts with land, lots of land under starry skies above talk about inconvenience, you listen a little harder. Like the fans of North Carolina basketball who flooded Mohegan Sun over the weekend.

They are a hoot. Had to be 4,000 of them at the weekend's Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament. They partook of everything Neon Uncasville offers and then some, even reminding us curmudgeons how lucky we are to have such an entertainment destination among us.

"I'd consider coming back here for (summer) vacation," Phil Carter of (Raleigh suburb) Zebulon, N.C. said Saturday, here with his wife and daughter, awash in Carolina blue. "I can't believe it. And it's near beaches? The only thing that's a drawback to us is it's a pain to get here from the airport."

Sure is. Mohegan Sun is an hour from T.F. Green in Providence and Bradley Airport in Windsor Locks.

Several other Carolina fans echoed Carter's thoughts, thus prompting today's modest proposal: Resurrect the idea of commercial flights to and from Groton New London Airport.

It would come down to this: A region needs significant cachet and the ability to create considerable demand in the post 9-11 era to encourage a commercial carrier to re-open business. Operating expenses after 9-11 increased for commercial carriers who responded by eliminating service to many smaller airports.

I spent Monday asking middle-of-the-batting-order people from here - Chamber of Commerce folks, casino and Pfizer officials - about this. Is this idea intriguing or utopian? Because there's a difference between boiling water and making coffee.

It wasn't unanimous - but pretty close - that there's interest.

"You've got us, Foxwoods, beaches, Mystic I would think you could get people to consider taking a summer vacation here," Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess said, his sentiments echoed by some North Carolinians on his property over the weekend. "I think we've become a draw. It's an interesting idea, but it would take concerted effort."

That old thing. But think about it: Mohegan Sun Arena alone attracts hundreds of entertainers and athletes regularly. Do you know the level of joy on the faces of WNBA players and coaches if they could fly to Groton and drive 25 minutes instead of the current alternatives?

The greatest argument players made against having the WNBA All-Star Game here permanently last summer was proximity to the airports. They need to get in and get out quickly. Not possible here.

Groton New London Airport currently allows private planes. Coca-Cola and Home Depot have flown executives into Groton for major events in the past while Pfizer, General Dynamics, Dominion Nuclear and the military fly people in on a regular basis.

Imagine the convenience of flying in and out of Groton for us, too: flights might be more expensive, but would we pay more for the convenience of easier parking, easier driving and less aggravation?

It wouldn't hurt the local economy, either.

Full disclosure: There must be 128 other factors I haven't considered. I have no idea what goes into a sell job to US Air or some other airline. But I believe we're a different region now than 10 years ago. We are not a metropolis. But we are evolving into a destination. Just ask 4,000 Carolinians.

This would require - and I hate this word like I hate the one-out bunt - synergy among officials from just about every relevant business around here. Most of them might have neither the time nor the inclination. But one word that resonates with all of us is convenience.

And I think we're relevant enough now to take another swing at an airline (or two) willing to service this corner of the world.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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