Background to Privatization
In November 2016, County Executive Astorino made a proposal to the Board of Legislators to lease the airport for 40 years to Oaktree Capital, giving the legislators one month to decide whether or not to implement the plan. The proposal would have given the county $15 million dollars up front to fill an operating budget gap of the same amount, a budget gap that remains today. Spread over the course of 40 years, the proposal would have given the county approximately $150 million, an average of $3.75 million per year.
The terms of the lease were unfavorable for the county, and the Board of Legislators hired Frasca, an aviation consulting firm, to create an open bidding process. Frasca has publicly stated in at least two public meetings that the new lease, currently hidden from the public, is 80-90% identical to the lease proposed for Oaktree.
There are three companies who have made bids to privatize the Westchester County airport: Ferrostar Westchester Airport Partners (Ferrovial and Aerostar America), HPN Aviation Group (Oaktree Capital and Connor Capital), MIC Airports LLC (Macquarie Infrastructure Corp).
Background to Airport Master Plan
The last master plan was created in 1987 and all projects were largely completed. The county has consistently received federal funds for projects every year since then without any updates to its last master plan. This includes improvements to stormwater runoff management and a large baggage building built in 2016.
In 2012, County Executive Astorino hired DY Consultants to create a new master plan for the airport, with plans for significant construction and expansion using Federal and County money. The master plan was hidden from public view except for one early meeting in 2013 attended by airport interests. Repeated requests under Freedom of Information Act starting in 2015 to see the plan by both reporters and by county legislators were denied. During this time, multiple drafts were submitted to the FAA, which needs to approve the plan in order to provide some federal funding for these projects.
In 2017, it was discovered that the County Executive office had provided a copy of the master plan to the multiple companies bidding for the airport lease under the privatization proposal. Under pressure from county legislators and the public, the County Executive office released the airport master plan in May 2017. On July 27, 2017, the County Executive office finally held a public hearing on the plan. It was well attended by more than 200 people. County Executive Astorino expects the airport master plan to be voted on in November 2017 by the Board of Legislators.
Westchester County Airport opened in Feburary 1945 as a small airport for National Guard use. Commercial flights began in 1948. By the early 1980s, the increase in commercial and private flights had created a noise pollution problem around the airport.
Terminal Use Regulation (TUR)
In 1984, Westchester County reached a legal settlement with the airlines to restrict passengers to 240 per half hour and flights to 4 per half hour, whether arriving or departing. It is commonly referred to as the passenger cap. That agreement became county law in 2005.
Private aviation is responsible 85-90% of all flights at the airport. These flights are not covered by the TUR, so there are no restrictions on their number. Over half of the airport’s revenue is generated by private aviation.
Large corporations including Citigroup, IBM, J.P. Morgan, PepsiCo, and Philip Morris maintain private hangars for their jet fleets. Additionally, large charter operators including NetJets, FlexJet, and JetSmarter maintain hangars at the airport. The last 5 years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of scheduled charter operations at the airport. These operators function like airlines – you can buy a ticket on their regularly scheduled services – but are unregulated like private flights.
Past Commitments to Limit Expansion
In 2003, the Board of Legislators adopted Resolution 245-2003 setting county policy against expansion of the airport. Together with the County Executive, the Board pledged that there would be no expansion of Westchester County Airport facilities beyond those set forth in the 1987 Airport Master Plan. The Resolution states in part, “the policy of the Westchester County Board of Legislators is and continues to be one of supporting no increase in the total capacity of the Airport’s runways, taxiways, ramps, gates, hangars, terminal, motor vehicle parking areas, or access roads, in order that we may protect our fragile environment, including the drinking water for almost nine million people.”
To further this commitment, the county took innovative steps to limit the airport while complying with federal law, like closing the parking garage from 12:30 AM to 5:50 AM to discourage airlines from scheduling flights in violation of the curfew. Federal law generally prohibits local curfews or other access restrictions unless they were grandfathered under the 1990 Airport Noise and Control Act.
Unfortunately, these promises seem to have fallen by the wayside under the Astorino administration.
The 2015 Proposal to Expand the Airport
County Executive Rob Astorino proposed in 2015 to amend the TUR to relax the limit on passengers from 240 per half hour to 11,520 per day (240 X 48), arguing that airliners like JetBlue needed the change in order to continue business at Westchester. The County Board of Legislators voted this down in 2016, noting that the proposal would lead to significant growth and expansion of airline operations at the airport.
The Journal News published a good overview of the Airport’s history, its growth, past efforts to limit expansion, and the 2015 proposal to increase the passenger cap.