Identity crisis at Stewart?

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey seems to be having cold feet in regard to construction of a $40-million, 20,000-square-foot terminal addition to house a permanent federal inspection station for processing international passengers at Stewart International Airport. The winner of that contract, J. Kokolakis Contracting Inc., reported back in January that it was almost ready to start work on the site. A spokesperson for the powerful public authority that runs the airport reported non-committally this week that “there has not been a ground-breaking on any aspect of Stewart.” 

The self-contained addition was scheduled to have its own entrances from the gates, baggage-claim area, bathrooms and other services. Norwegian Air’s flights between Stewart and Dublin are presently the sole international passenger activity at the airport. Norwegian has been flying out of Stewart for two years and two months. In 2018, its activities contributed 324,000 revenue passengers to an airport total of 690,000. But Port Authority has been unable to persuade other international carriers to join it there. And Norwegian has reduced its European route destinations from Stewart from five to one.

The aviation picture has changed. Stewart may be at a strategic crossroads.

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The 18 eggs in the carton I bought at the Hannaford supermarket in Kingston Plaza this week were lined up in corseted rows like passengers on a crowded airliner. Not one dozen or two dozen eggs, but 18 eggs. Right in the middle between one dozen and two dozen.

Once a day a A330-300 Airbus bound for Dublin lumbers down the runway at Stewart International Airport. On short-term lease from Evelop Air to Norwegian Air, the large craft can accommodate up to 388 passengers. Filled to capacity every day, the Airbus could carry a maximum of 23,280 paying customers to Dublin and back to Stewart in a 30-day month. 

That’s fine in the slow winter and spring season, but the data seems to suggest that it’s not enough capacity for the busy summer, when demand is, as in the case of the 18-egg carton, somewhere in the middle. Enough to fill more than one Airbus with Dublin travelers each way per day but not enough to fill two.

Norwegian carried 20,159 international revenue passengers to and from the airport in May, the most recent month for which published data is available. That number was perilously close to the one-Airbus capacity ceiling of 23,280.       

Last year, when Norwegian was serving several European destinations on its flights from Stewart, it had carried a total of 29,432 revenue passengers in May — up dramatically as the weather warmed, from the previous month’s 22,536. 

In the three high-traffic months after May last year, Norwegian served 33,592, 34,906 and 37,765 (the annual peak) revenue passengers per month at Stewart. 

According to Norwegian spokesperson Anders Lindstrom, the discount airliner had planned two flights a day to Dublin on the smaller and very fuel-efficient Boeing 737 Max 8 planes that have been grounded for the past six months over safety concerns. The option of flying three 737 Max 8 per day out of Stewart to Dublin is unavailable. 

With the Airbuses, there was potentially greater demand for seats on the summer Dublin-Stewart flights than there has been supply. In the highly seasonal international airline business, that’s not a good way to grow a business. You gotta make hay while the sun shines.

Executive changes at Norwegian are signaling further disruption. “Bye, bye, Bjorn,” exulted aviation writer Brett Snyder, alias The Cranky Flier, in a recent column. The impending departure of Bjorn Kjos, the ex-fighter flier who was founder and CEO of Norwegian Air, has been interpreted as a sign of the carrier’s willingness to change strategies. Slower growth, more emphasis on profitability. 

More route cancellations will increase the likelihood of changes that will disrupt the carrier’s partners as well. It has already canceled many routes and said it expected to make further revisions. Pessimistic industry sources are increasingly predicting three possible futures for the Viking risk-taker: bankruptcy, sale to a larger air carrier, and precarious survival as a niche carrier.

Norwegian’s talk of “route optimization” isn’t reassuring to secondary airports of major American metropolitan areas like Stewart. 

With only a single discount carrier presently serving the low-cost international niche with flights to a single destination, albeit a potentially profitable one, Stewart is in a precarious position. A $40-million facility for low-cost international travel makes no sense for an airport that offers no international flights. 

A gateway airport is the last stop, sort of an accumulation point, prior to an international flight. “Stewart has enormous potential to be a real gateway airport to the New York area,” Rick Cotton, PA’s executive director, told The New York Times reporter Christine Negroni last year. Negroni’s story’s was headlined “Stewart Airport Adopts a New Identity: New York Area’s Budget Flight Hub.” She wrote that “Port Authority has bought into the Norwegian business plan as a way of accelerating Stewart’s evolution.”

Without additional international destinations and other carriers, there may be no business plan for Port Authority to buy into. Back to the drawing board?

Aug. 13 update: “Yesterday, Norwegian Air, beset by serious financial difficulties  elsewhere, announced it was pulling out of Stewart Airport entirely in mid-September. Its departure will leave airport operator Port Authority  of New York and New Jersey back where it was two years ago when it recruited Norwegian, which attracted 325.000 paying customers to the airport in 2018.”

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