The last hurrah?

This will probably be the second to last — at least for a while — of our occasional columns in this space about flight activities at Stewart Airport. The two years of Norwegian Air’s experiment with the Newburgh airport for low-cost international flights is coming to a close a week from this coming Sunday, on September 15. The most dramatic traffic boost in Stewart’s commercial history is about to come to an unwelcome end. 

Through its spokespersons, airport operator Port Authority of New York and Jersey (PA) has put a brave face on the discontinuance of all Norwegian’s flights between Stewart and Dublin and similar flights from the airports in Providence and Hamilton, Ontario. Norwegian’s experience had proven Stewart’s appeal, the powerful bistate agency concluded, for airlines “with the right equipment, market positioning and route map.” On-going discussions with almost a dozen unnamed airlines, “both new entrants and those looking to expand service in the region,” were taking place, PA said in a press release,. 

Don’t hold your breath.  

The building of a $40-million federal inspection station at Stewart for processing international passengers made little sense unless the airport had scheduled international flights — which it won’t have starting September 15. A contract for the building expansion has been signed, but actual construction will require an okay from PA. The agency is making noises about going ahead anyway, but it’s hard to believe that will happen without the commitment of an international carrier.

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Might another airline unencumbered by unresolved safety issues on its planes step up to the role the financially challenged Scandinavian carrier was willing to play? Despite PA’s willingness to offer very favorable terms in its discussions, it’s not clear that there will be any takers.

PA’s recently released June passenger traffic data illustrates the magnitude of the potential marketplace for low-cost international flights utilizing Stewart Airport. With but a single daily 787-9 Dreamliner flight from Stewart to Dublin and back, Norwegian Air recorded 20,743 paying passengers in June. Since this Dreamliner model has 344 seats, total potential passenger traffic at 100 percent capacity would fill 10,320 seats each way, or 20,640 in all. Norwegian planes flying between Stewart and Dublin appear to have achieved 100.5 percent capacity during June. 

Can’t do much better than that. 

With those results from a single route, the only way you could lose money is if your revenues were less than your expenses. Norwegian has claimed that was the case here. “As the airline moves from growth to profitability, we have conducted a comprehensive review of our transatlantic operations between North America and Ireland and concluded that these routes are no longer commercially viable,” wrote Matthew Wood, a Norwegian Air vice-president, on August 13. Without a firm return-to-service date for the grounded Boeing 737 Maxes, he wrote, the continuing costs of leasing expensive replacement aircraft for them was an unsustainable proposition.

Norwegian had essayed a couple of interesting innovations to its customers using Stewart. One was the provision of Coach USA bus service times between Stewart and New York City to meet Norwegian Air schedules — reportedly, as many as 40 percent of Norwegian’s passengers paid $20 each way for this bus service. The other was a travel package allowing passengers to visit Woodbury Commons premium outlets and get back to the airport in time for an evening Norwegian flight to Dublin.

There was a larger picture to be considered, however. Already on the financial brink as a consequence of its worldwide expansionary strategy, the Scandinavian airline was unlikely to cut some less utilized transatlantic routes while leaving intact the one between Stewart and Dublin. In the short term, it probably decided that its Dublin-based  staff was better directed toward pursuit of European rather than American opportunities.  

It’s back to the drawing board for PA at Stewart. Domestic airline passenger traffic has been flat. In the twelve months ending on June 30, the Newburgh airport generated 366,838 domestic revenue passengers. For the entirety of 2018 the corresponding number was almost identical: 366,130. 

For PA at Stewart, the number of international passengers falling from 324,281 in 2018 to zero in 2020 will be a bitter pill to swallow. Its only consolation is that Stewart, carrying less than half of one percent of the airport system’s total number of paying passengers, really doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things.

In 2018 the PA reported a total of 138.5 million paying airline passengers to its New York metro area airports, up nearly six million over the previous year. On a year-to-year basis, another 1.7 million passengers had been added by the mid-year mark of 2019.  The robust growth of the international sector is continuing. New York remains the dominant gateway for visitation to the United States. Among the international airlines, Norwegian Air ranks fifth in passenger traffic to the PA airports. 

So it’s back to the role as exurban backup in a very large airport system for Stewart International. Why then did this article announce itself as the second to last in a series instead of the last? Probably out of an abundance of caution. There’s enough unpredictability in so rapidly changing a world that one never knows whether the latest chapter in any economic saga is the final one.

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