Westchester County Airport upgrades: Dems, GOP find rare agreement on spending spree

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 saw 150,000 fewer passengers last year than in 2011.

The airport, which has an annual budget of $50 million and is run by the county, is facing a $2 million hole this year because AirTran discontinued its 10 daily flights there last August, and no replacement airline has come forward.

Despite the bleak financial situation, county officials are moving ahead with a number of big-dollar upgrades to the World War II-era airport. And in a cash-pinched county where it seems every dollar spent spawns another controversy, no one -- Republicans or Democrats alike -- seems to mind the airport's spending spree.


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"It's important that the airport remains competitive," said Legis. David Gelfarb, a Republican who represents Harrison, Rye Brook and Port Chester. "It's an economic driver for the county."

The airport is largely self-sufficient, balancing its budget on revenue-producers like hangar rental fees for corporate clients, per-gallon fees on fuel pumped as well as baggage and ticket fees for commercial airlines. The airport even picks up the $8 million annual tab for police officers that patrol the airport.

Beyond that, large chunks of the tab for the soon-to-come upgrades are being backed by federal and state grants. For instance, 90 percent of the cost of rebuilding Taxiway A will be covered by a $3.28 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, while another 5 percent comes from state transportation funds. In addition, some $2 million in bonds will be issued to install new escalators, baggage carousels and ticket counters at the crowded main terminal that opened in 1995, a decade before commercial airlines first touched down in Westchester.

"This is the best and cheapest way to do these capital improvements," said Legis. Catherine Borgia, a Democrat and member of the Budget and Appropriations Committee where many of the projects have been approved in recent months. "It really makes sense economically."

Borgia and others say they are confident in their decision to let the airport take on debt, predicting that in the coming months the airport will find someone to replace AirTran.

"The airline industry is going through a difficult time, but we do see this as an attractive business opportunity for potential vendors," Borgia said. "I don't think it's irrational optimism. We do think it will come back. We certainly wouldn't want to be without it."

DOWNTURN FOR REGIONAL AIRPORTS

The airport, that for a time in the 1940s, housed Army fighter planes ready to fend off a foreign attack on New York City, is situated five miles east of White Plains in the towns of Harrison, North Castle and Rye Brook. It is careful not to upset its neighbors. A regular feature of monthly airport advisory board meetings is the noise complaint report.

Westchester's total of 1.75 million passengers in 2012 -- down from 1.9 million the year before -- was the result of some 3,100 fewer commercial and corporate flights than in 2011. It was the lowest total since 2007, when 1.65 million passengers came through.

It's not the only regional airport struggling to recoup pre-recession passenger totals.

Stewart International Airport to the north in Orange County was the lone Port Authority of New York and New Jersey airport with a passenger decrease in 2012. Its passenger total dipped 12 percent last year, from 413,654 in 2011 to 364,848. Similar to Westchester, Stewart's decrease was pegged to JetBlue's decision to reduce the size of its Florida-bound jets from 158-seaters to ones that hold 100.

LOCAL AIRPORT, BIG SELLING POINT FOR BUSINESSES

Westchester's six airlines -- Delta, JetBlue, United, American, Cape Air and US Airways -- fly 55 daily flights to Florida, North Carolina, Detroit, Chicago and the Bahamas, among other places.

Borgia explained that the airport is limited to how many more flights it can handle. County rules cap the number of passengers that can go through its four gates every half-hour to 240.

"We can't get too big," Borgia said.

One of Westchester's major boosters is the local business community, which has highlighted the airport's role as a convenient option for passengers looking to avoid the hassle of New York and New Jersey airports.

"It means something to businesses to look at that airport as a place it could use when they do conferences at our hotels," said John Ravitz, the executive vice president of the Business Council of Westchester, a trade group. "Having that airport is a nice selling point."

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