Hanscom use hits new low

Massport sees hopeful signs

The bulk of the airplane traffic at the Hanscom airfield is corporate jets that ferry executives on business calls. The bulk of the airplane traffic at the Hanscom airfield is corporate jets that ferry executives on business calls. (Boston Globe/File 1999)
By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2010

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For the second year in a row, air traffic at Hanscom Field in Bedford fell by almost 10 percent in 2009, hitting the lowest level the airport has seen in more than 25 years.

According to a new report released by the Massachusetts Port Authority, the economy is largely to blame for the decline, as the airport’s primary clientele — corporate jet activity by executives doing business along the high-tech corridors of Route 128 and Interstate 495 — scaled back their usage by 16.9 percent from 2008 and down from a peak in 2007.

The general aviation airport, which services smaller, private planes not permitted at Logan International in Boston, ran a $2 million deficit in its 2009 fiscal year, and expects to lose another $1.8 million this year.

Massport officials, who were slated to present the report to the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission on Tuesday evening, say despite the numbers, activity in the final months of last year suggest that the decline appears to have “bottomed out.’’

“We consider it a short-term lapse,’’ said Barbara Patzner, director of Hanscom Field. “This particular dip is na tional in scope and affects all businesses coming into Boston, as well as local.’’

Patzner said she expects the airport will bounce back, but the recovery will be slower and take longer than the dip that occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“Companies like Raytheon still need to be out there,’’ she said.

Total aircraft activity at Hanscom Field fell from 165,889 takeoffs and landings in 2008 to an estimated 149,911 last year. Activity fell for recreational flights, flight school training, corporate trips, and military use, but increased slightly for helicopter use, Massport found.

The decline at Hanscom closely mirrors a national downturn in business aviation that began in late 2007 in tandem with a spike in the cost of fuel. The number of corporate jet operations nationally fell between 20 percent and 30 percent each year, said Brian Foley, a New Jersey-based consultant whose firm tracks the general aviation industry.

Since hitting rock bottom in June 2009, the number of corporate jet operations have begun to recover, with first quarter 2010 up nearly 10 percent over the first quarter of last year, he said.

“Clearly companies are taking a closer look at the return on investment in business travel,’’ said Caleb Tiller, a spokesman for the National Business Travel Association, a Virginia-based organization that represents more than 4,000 corporate travel managers and service providers.

But even with cost-cutting measures in place, such as video-conferencing and fractional ownership of corporate jets, most top executives will continue to fly by private jet for security and productivity reasons, he said.

“Big international deals, that’s not going to be replaced by conference calls,’’ said Tiller. “Will we end up exactly where we were in 2006 and 2007? Probably not.’’

Foley estimates it could take between five and 10 years for the industry to return to its 2007 peak.

Even though business is down today, Patzner said, it’s critical for Hanscom’s future that Massport plans ahead so that when demand returns and developers approach with proposals, they are prepared.

Though there are no immediate plans for development, the report identifies several sites for consideration. They include the controversial “Hangar 24,’’ a building some want preserved and turned into an aviation museum because of its historic connection to Charles Draper and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories; the “East Ramp,’’ where new corporate jet hangars might be built; the grassy Pine Hill area for flight school expansion; a trailer park leased from Massport by the US Air Force that will become vacant this year; and a hangar, ramp and office building owned by the US Navy.

“The question in my mind, how are their decisions going to impact the communities?’’ said Jeanne Krieger, a former Lexington selectwoman and current chairwoman of the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission. The commission includes top officials from the four communities abutting Hanscom, as well as Minute Man National Historical Park, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Hanscom Air Force base and other groups.

Neil Rasmussen, president of Save Our Heritage, a Concord preservation advocacy group, said two things in the report are “most concerning’’ to him. One is “an absence of any clear statements of policy going forward’’ about what kind of development Massport will pursue, he said.

“And we strongly disagree with their statements of the economic benefit of the airport,’’ which he called “ridiculous.’’ “There’s a lot of negative economic impact’’ of having a busy airport operating so close to a national historic park and national wildlife refuge, he said.

Krieger said historically, Bedford, Concord, Lexington and Lincoln have felt “underinformed’’ about Massport’s development plans, and that if there are going to be new hangars or hotels or flight schools, the towns want to be part of the discussion. “We want to be certain were going to be involved in that,’’ she said.

“We’re spectators, or in many cases, victims of their decision-making process,’’ said Rasmussen.

“We don’t seem to have a lot of input.’’

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at