$230 million projects at Bradley International Airport anticipate growth in passenger numbers. “It will transform the building.”
WINDSOR LOCKS – In anticipation of future growth in air travel, Bradley International Airport is embarking on two major projects that will cost nearly $230 million to transform the airport terminal and make room for more airlines, passengers and equipment.
The state’s largest commercial airport will build a system that will transport checked baggage along a mile-long network of conveyor belts to a new building near the Sheraton Hotel for security screening. The $185 million project will remove baggage screening from the terminal lobby, freeing up space for at least 16 new airline ticket counters.
Bradley checks around 2 million bags a year, not including carry-on bags.
A complementary $42 million project will include additions to the east and west sides of the terminal. New sets of escalators and elevators will connect the lobby and baggage claim, also creating new lounges for people waiting for travelers arriving at the airport.
The idea is to unclog the central stairwell which now serves all passengers. The central stairwell will eventually be removed, opening up more space for travelers queuing at the nearby passenger checkpoint. During busy periods, the line often overflows into the hall.
Kevin Dillon, Executive Director of the Connecticut Airport Authoritywho oversees Bradley’s operations, said the projects will help absorb expected airline and passenger growth in the coming years, which will delay construction of a second terminal.
“I think in Bradley’s future a second terminal is inevitable, but we want to push it as far as possible for obvious financial reasons,” Dillon said. “A new terminal, you’re talking over a billion dollars.”
Baggage screening in airport halls was a visceral reaction after 9/11, experts say. Over the past decade, however, screening has largely moved out of airport concourses, with air travelers expecting to hand over their bags to counter agents for screening elsewhere, they say.
“There’s just something [psychological] to see the bag on the belt,” said Ty Orbaugh, global director of aviation at San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler, which designs airport projects. “I think you feel he’s going to get where he needs to get. There is a level of security there.
Likewise, more and more airports are considering passenger “flow” projects, such as the two additions at either end of the Bradley Terminal, Orbaugh said. There’s a growing emphasis on making it easier to get around, whether on foot, in a wheelchair or on crutches, Orbaugh said.
“The more you give passengers the ability to move around freely, it’s a much safer environment,” Orbaugh said.
At Bradley, projects are expected to be completed within the next two to three years.
Construction will begin this fall and begin just months after Bradley cut the ribbon on his new $210 million ground transportation hub. The transportation center consolidated all car rental companies in one place and added more parking spaces, all connected to the terminal.
Most of the combined funding for the two new projects — $104 million — is expected to come from airport reserves and borrowing through bond sales. These bonds would be repaid by the revenues generated by the airport.
Federal grants to airports of about $40 million — including a competitive $20 million grant awarded this summer under federal infrastructure legislation — and about $45 million from the Transportation Security Administration, which manages baggage screening, are part of the funding program.
The final tranche of funding, approximately $38 million, is expected to come from passenger facility fees. These charges, up to $4.50 per passenger boarding an aircraft, are allowed at airports like Bradley that are controlled by government agencies.
The launch of the two improvement projects, however, comes at an uncertain time in the airline market nationwide and in Connecticut.
At Bradley, leisure travel has surged this summer, but business travel, which accounted for half of Bradley’s passengers before the pandemic, continues to lag.
Experts said air travel for corporate meetings may be largely lost to Zoom for good, but client meetings are expected to resume.
The expensive projects at Bradley also coincide with the emergence of the once sleepy Tweed-New Haven Airport backwater as a competitor. Tweed, which is not supervised by the CAA, now offers some of the same routes as Bradley, particularly leisure flights to Florida on Avelo Airlines.
Air travelers arriving and departing from Bradley have plunged in the pandemic to 2.4 million, down from 6.75 million in 2019, according to CAA statistics. In 2021, Bradley recorded 4.6 million passengers.
Dillon said annual air passenger numbers appear to be on track to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023 and, despite the uncertainty, he is optimistic about future growth. This year, Bradley has seen route expansion, particularly with low-cost carrier Breeze Airways. Breeze also makes Bradley a hub of operations.
Dillon said he was watching business travel variables and Tweed’s expansion, as well as airlines adjusting the number of flights nationwide, responding to staff shortages.
“You have to factor that into some of the decisions that we make,” Dillon said. “With these two projects, we believe we are late and need to be done. Some of the things we do now, we play catch-up.
On a recent afternoon, Dillon and CAA Director of Engineering and Planning Bob Bruno walk through the airport lobby past the baggage screening machines.
“I feel very comfortable saying this: Bradley is one of the last airports in the country where you have these behemoths in the lobby,” Dillon said. “As you can see, each of these machines is very labor intensive, bag feeding.”
With the new system, baggage will be sent to control via the conveyor system at the counter. Passengers will not have to take the separate step of getting them to the screening machines in the concourse.
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The screening will take place on the lower level of the new 80,000 square foot building tucked behind the rear of the hotel. An upper level is expected to be used for future expansion of the gate, essentially the start of a second terminal that could be built where the now-demolished Murphy Terminal once stood. A “mezzanine” above that can be used as offices and mechanical equipment.
The screening project is paired with two additions of 10,000 square feet each at the west and east ends of the terminal anticipating passenger growth and reducing congestion between the concourse and baggage claim.
Both will be equipped with designated areas for people waiting to meet arriving passengers. Now these people are often waiting at the top of the existing central stairwell, which adds to congestion in the neighborhood.
At the east end, there will be space to expand and add another entrance to the popular Escape Lounge and another concession, Bruno said.
At the far end of the terminal there is a tighter fit as the Sheraton is so close, but access from the hotel addition is provided.
“It will transform the building,” Bruno said. “Maybe it’s not as dramatic as the ground transportation hub, but it will be a dramatic difference for passengers in terms of how they come and go.”
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected]