Westchester Airport faces $2M hit, losing dozens of jobs

Westchester County Airport is a county-owned, public-use airport

Westchester County Airport is a county-owned, public-use airport in Harrison. (April 26, 2012) (Credit: Nancy Siesel)

Westchester County Airport could lose $2 million from its 2013 operating budget, forcing the elimination of 35 contractor jobs as escalating fuel prices leave airlines skittish about adding flights, Newsday has learned.

A lottery Tuesday for some of the 10 daily flights abandoned in August when discount airliner AirTran shut down operations at the airport -- located in Harrison, North Castle and Rye Brook, about five miles east of White Plains -- turned up no takers, according to Patricia Chemka, Westchester County's deputy commissioner for public works and transportation.

However, a few of the airport's existing airlines agreed to pick up passenger slots once held by AirTran by switching to larger planes. AirTran's flights to and from Florida and Atlanta accounted for some 300,000 of the 2 million passengers that use the airport every year.

"Even though no airlines are coming in to take AirTran's slots, the allocation is changing," Chemka said.

The increase of slots will not, however, exceed the limit of 240 passengers per half hour that the airport follows.

Chemka predicts the county will lose some $2 million that comes mostly from the per-head passenger fee it charges the airlines. The loss is on top of a $1.7 million budget hit in 2012, from Aug. 12 -- when AirTran left -- to December.

"We are adjusting staffing levels and will continue to find other ways to reduce costs so that we don't have to draw from the special revenue fund at the end of the year to balance the budget," Chemka said.

PRIVATE-SECTOR JOBS

No county jobs will be eliminated. However, Chemka said, the equivalent of 35 full-time positions will be lost by AvPORTS, the private contractor hired by the county to manage the airport. Some of those cuts may include part-time employees.

AvPORTS also manages Stewart International Airport in Newburgh and Newark Liberty International Airport.

Three more lotteries will take place before the end of the year, leaving open the possibility that if the economy improves and fuel prices dip, another airline might be willing to absorb the slots.

"The year is new and a lot can happen between now and 2014," Chemka said.

Airport groups said there was little the airport could do, considering the financial pressures that many airlines appear to be facing. Many airlines are trying to make up their losses around the margins by charging for baggage and other customer service, they say.

"I'm never happy to see jobs in the aviation industry go away," said John Johnston, the president of the Westchester Aviation Association, which represents owners and operators. "I would hope they're able to attract someone else."

RISING FUEL COSTS

AirTran was purchased by Southwest Airlines in 2012, joining a growing list of airlines that have consolidated. Its decision to leave Westchester was influenced by rising fuel costs, the company said.

Six passenger airlines fly out of Westchester: Delta, JetBlue, United, American, Cape Air and US Airways.

JetBlue recently started using the 150-seat A320 aircraft instead of the 100-seat E190 to pick up some of the overflow left by AirTran, a spokeswoman said.

"We're proud to be Westchester's largest low-fare carrier and continue to seek opportunities to add capacity and keep fares low, while maintaining excellence in service and product," said spokeswoman Sharon Jones.

The airport consistently has ranked among the state's leading public-use airports in financial performance. A 2011 state report showed the airport had 2009 earnings of $334 million and generated $72 million in local and state taxes.

Before JetBlue and AirTran started flying out of Westchester, the number of passengers was about half the current total.

The World War II-era airport, which takes up 700 acres, has one of the largest corporate aircraft fleets in the nation.

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