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Sending Fliers
Up the River
To Ease Traffic
March 4, 2008; Page D1

Deer graze beside the main access road here in Newburgh, N.Y. Boarded up buildings dot a hillside. A single skycap stands in the cold outside the airport terminal, longing for a customer.

It is hard to picture this little-used rural airport as a key to congestion relief for New York and the nation's air-transport system, but that is the $600 million hope of many.

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Would you ride a bus or train two hours to avoid the possibility of three-hour delay? Discuss.

Stewart Airport, an abandoned Air Force base 60 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, is being transformed into a fourth airport for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York's airport operator.

Unable to build additional runways at La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports, the Port Authority paid $78.5 million to buy a 93-year lease on Stewart and pledged to invest $500 million more to turn it into a bustling hub. The state of New York just completed construction of a new access road and is working on making interstate highways connect more easily to the airport. And the Port Authority has already built a 400-spot parking lot.

Passenger traffic at Stewart Airport tripled last year.

The plan starts with making Stewart a discounter destination for New York, much as London developed Stansted Airport and Luton Airport as bases for discounters so they didn't clog Gatwick and Heathrow. Already, Skybus Airlines Inc., a bare-bones operation based in Columbus, Ohio, flies to Columbus and Greensboro, N.C., from Stewart. AirTran Airways Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., along with regional partners of Delta Air Lines Inc., Northwest Airlines Corp. and US Airways Group Inc., fly to Stewart. And Port Authority officials recently went to Europe to entice discount operators there to use Stewart for trans-Atlantic flights.

"We have to get people to change habits and one way to do that is with price," said Diannae Ehler, the Port Authority's general manager at Stewart.

Easing congestion in the New York area would improve air-traffic flow nationwide. New York was responsible for a majority of all delayed flights last year -- delays that cascade through the nation's air-travel system and create havoc for millions of travelers. So extreme were the problems last year that the federal government is imposing new restrictions on the number of flights at Kennedy and Newark (restrictions already exist at La Guardia).

But big cities face obstacles in creating "reliever airports." Airlines sometimes resist, since it is easier to fill flights when they're concentrated at the same airport. And passengers, particularly business travelers, like to go to airports with lots of flights in case one gets canceled or schedules change.

$500 million is being pumped into Stewart Airport.

Chicago proposed creating a third airport in Peotone, Ill., but airlines fought the proposal vehemently. Los Angeles has pumped lots of money into Palmdale, Calif., hoping to make it a reliever for the congested LA Basin, but so far only United Airlines is offering limited, subsidized service.

The idea has worked elsewhere. London's satellite airports in the countryside have been growing rapidly, driven largely by discounters easyJet and Ryanair. Boston is ringed by several competing airports with commercial service, from big operations at Providence, R.I., and Manchester, N.H., which have become major destinations for Southwest Airlines and others, to fledgling development at Worcester, Mass., and former military bases in Portsmouth, N.H., and Bedford, Mass. Skybus now flies to Portsmouth, formerly Pease Air Force Base about 44 miles from Boston.

At Stewart, passenger traffic tripled last year to 920,000 from just 300,000 in 2006 -- still tiny compared with the 100 million who use the three main New York airports annually.

Robert Sprague from Litchfield, Conn., tried Stewart for the first time recently for a JetBlue trip to Florida to see his daughter and take in the Daytona 500. "The best thing was the access -- to be able to drive right up," he said. "Everywhere else is a nightmare."

But Lois Ide of Cincinnati found that remoteness had its price, even when airline tickets are cheap. She brought her daughter and friend to New York to see "Wicked" on Broadway for $10 one-way fares on Skybus -- $33 a piece when taxes are included. But taking a van service to the city took 90 minutes and cost them a total of $400 round-trip. Would they do it again?

"Probably not," Ms. Ide said. "If we could get a cheap fare to La Guardia, I'd probably just do that."

The Port Authority sees Stewart as a viable option for people who live in suburbs north of the George Washington Bridge near New York. Instead of a traffic-filled drive to La Guardia or Kennedy, they likely would find a drive to Stewart and parking there more convenient -- if a plentiful flight schedule were available. Last year, 11 million passengers at La Guardia and Kennedy lived within one hour of Stewart.

Stewart may even be a viable alternative for travelers in Manhattan. Currently, train service to Beacon, N.Y., takes about 85 minutes, and a $1 shuttle bus adds another 20 minutes to the trip. The Port Authority is trying to get direct bus service that might be quicker. The trip to other New York airports may not be as long, but it can be much more arduous. A cab ride to Kennedy from Manhattan can take an hour when traffic is jammed, and once you're on a plane at Stewart, there's no waiting an hour or two or three to take off because there's no congestion. And there's hardly ever a security line at Stewart.

It's the easy, inexpensive drive that makes Stewart so appealing, says Steve Landes of Pompano Beach, Fla., who uses Stewart when visiting his daughter in New York. "There's parking, ample parking, and it's only $7 or $8 a day."

Write to Scott McCartney at

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