January 8, 2018

CT Airport Authority eyeing private operator for three airports to cut costs

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
CT Airport Authority Executive Director Kevin Dillon said CAA is considering outsourcing operations at three of its general aviation airports.

The Connecticut Airport Authority is considering outsourcing operations of three of its five general aviation airports in an attempt to save money and narrow multimillion-dollar losses on the facilities.

The CAA's negotiation with Dulles, Va.-based AFCO AvPORTS Management LLC involves Hartford-Brainard, Waterbury-Oxford and Groton-New London airports and could include a phased-in operations contract. Negotiations do not include Danielson or Windham airports, where the CAA has no day-to-day staffing and already outsources basic maintenance, including snow removal, to third-party contractors.

The proposal also does not include Bradley International Airport.

The CAA board is expected to discuss the AvPORTS deal Jan. 8 when it meets at 1 p.m.

"One of the things that we struggle with at our general aviation airports, as do most general aviation airports across the country, they typically don't operate in the black," said Kevin Dillon, the CAA's executive director.

The five general aviation airports reported cumulative operating losses, excluding depreciation, of about $3 million in fiscal 2016 and $2.7 million in fiscal 2017, according to CAA figures.

"Ultimately, the goal of the Airport Authority is to have the airport system here stand on its own," Dillon said.

The main area to achieve savings is labor, which is impacted by the high costs of fringe benefits for state union contracts, Dillon said, projecting more than $1 million in annual savings with a private operator.

There are 16 full-time equivalent employees at the three general aviation airports represented by four labor groups, most of them, 11, by the maintainers union, or NP-2, whose responsibilities include airfield maintenance such as snowplowing and grass mowing.

CAA is talking with the unions on the issue, Dillon said.

"We know the impact to individual employees and we have committed a couple of things," he said.

First, everybody would be guaranteed a job at Bradley because it has openings for all of those classifications, Dillon said.

The CAA also would provide that AvPORTS essentially give current employees first right of refusal so long as they comply with AvPORTS standards, he said.

Carl Chisem, vice president of the union representing the service and maintenance workers, CEUI SEIU Local 511, said he and union president Ron McLellan continue to talk with Dillon. The union is trying to verify the number of affected workers and other details and come to a workable solution, but it's still early, Chisem said, unable to provide details pending further discussions.

"There are a lot of things that we still have to flesh out — what's the best possible solution," he said.

"We understand … the state is in a bind," Chisem said. "Talking with the airport, hopefully you come out to a workable solution. We haven't gone through any numbers yet."

The important part is to try to protect members, Chisem said.

Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher, co-chair of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, said fringe benefit costs make it hard for Connecticut airports and other agencies to compete, adding it may make sense to privatize the airports' operations.

"I haven't studied it in-depth," Boucher said of the airport proposal, "but the state of Connecticut is in very serious financial condition, so any movement to try to restructure costs could prove helpful in this very difficult time."

Democratic state Sen. Tim Larson (East Hartford), who also is executive director of the Tweed New Haven Regional Airport Authority, knows AvPORTS well: It has managed all aspects of Tweed New Haven since 1998. Larson is the only Airport Authority employee at the airport; all others are AvPORTS workers.

"They're a great operation," Larson said, praising the company's affordability, service and flexibility, including waiting to get paid by the Airport Authority, which, due to state fiscal issues, had not yet received a $1.5 million state subsidy in late December to help pay AvPORTS.

"Those are the kind of things that sort of stand out with regard to the type of company they are," Larson said.

AvPORTS' role

Lindsey Rutka, co-owner of Brainard's fixed-base operator, Hartford Jet Center, whose operations or those of its tenants include jet fuel sales, maintenance, flight lessons, hangars, charter operations and a restaurant on a ground lease with CAA and is not involved in airfield operations, appreciates the work state employees do at the airport.

"They do a phenomenal job, in my eyes," Rutka said, speaking only for Hartford Jet Center. "Whichever way the state or the state agencies decide to go, hopefully it's the best for the community across the board here."

The CAA's Dillon emphasized that the Airport Authority would continue to manage the airports if AvPORTS were hired.

"We would be making the development decisions at the airport, we would continue to be responsible for capital improvements of the infrastructure," he said. "This company would simply be supplying the labor to operate on a day-to-day basis."

AvPORTS manages a number of commercial and general aviation airports in the U.S., according to its website.

At Tweed, the company delivers airport operations, maintenance and janitorial services, administration and accounting services, engineering and planning and parking operations, according to its website.

AFCO AvPORTS' website lists management service roles at commercial airports that include Albany (N.Y.) International, Newark (N.J.) Liberty International, Stewart International (New Windsor, N.Y.) and Westchester County (N.Y.). On the general aviation side, it lists Gary/Chicago International, Republic (Farmingdale, N.Y.), Rhode Island Airport Corp. (for five general aviation airports in the state) and Teterboro (N.J.). It also lists roles at military and special airports Moffett Federal Airfield (Calif.) and Westover Air Reserve Base (Mass.).

An AvPORTS official did not return a call for comment.

See related story: Hartford Jet Center targets more Brainard Airport hangars

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