As Cape Cod aims to expand its underused airport, some residents wonder why

The Boston Globe

Passenger traffic has plunged at the Hyannis airport in recent years. Now, its operators want to lengthen the runway to handle bigger new plans from New York.

Aircraft at the Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis.
Aircraft at the Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis. VINCENT ALBAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

WEST YARMOUTH — It’s a typical afternoon in the Hyannis Park neighborhood of West Yarmouth: a constant rumble of small planes flying in over Lewis Bay rattles windows and prompts residents to mute video calls. Seemingly every few minutes in the summer, life pauses.

“All conversations stop while the planes go overhead,” said Elissa Buja, a longtime resident.

And this summer, there are even more. With one runway at Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis closed for maintenance work, most of the air traffic these days comes in over the Hyannis Park neighborhood.

And all of it for an airport used by few Cape Codders, or even, for that matter, by many people at all. Commercial passenger traffic at the airport is a fraction of what it once was, while private planes and charter service, which typically carry fewer people, have increased significantly. For example, the only major airline providing regional service, JetBlue, has just four flights daily, while the total number of landings and takeoffs in June topped 4,600, according to the airport’s most recent data.

And now the airport wants to extend one runway, a $22 million project to accommodate the larger Airbus planes JetBlue uses for its service to and from New York.

The proposal is not going over well with its neighbors, who argue the current number of flights is more than enough.

“On the weekends, you might as well be at LaGuardia,” said Susan Brita, another longtime resident who lives on Lewis Bay. “The noise is awful.”

Airport manager Katie Servis has heard the skeptics, including when they point out the sharp decline in air traffic. “Yeah, they’re declining,” she acknowledged. “We’re trying to correct that.”

The airport is in the midst of the permitting process, and if it gets environmental and other approvals, the early groundwork on the project would begin next year, with the extension of the runway itself not scheduled until 2028.

The expansion does have some local support, but Servis said the project has a even more influential backer: the Federal Aviation Administration, which is providing some of the funding because it considers the Cape Cod airport an important component of the national airport transportation system. The 900-foot extension would bring the runway closer to FAA standards.

“It’s not me, it is not the Cape Cod community, it’s not the Barnstable Town Council. It is the FAA saying that there’s an important aspect to this airport,” said Servis. “Thus, we must preserve it.”

Commercial passenger traffic to Hyannis is down a staggering 93 percent since 2007, to fewer than 30,000 passengers last year. Meanwhile, nearly half of all flights to Hyannis last year were private or charter, up from one in four a decade ago.

Even at reduced numbers, the airport provides an essential service for some locals. People use it for quick trips to Boston and New York, while Boston Medflight utilizes it to transport people to trauma centers.

A warning sign nearby the Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis. VINCENT ALBAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Ron Foster, general manager of Marine Home Center, said the home improvement store on Nantucket couldn’t operate without the Hyannis airport. Every workday, the store flies about 30 workers over to Nantucket, with four flights in the morning and four in the afternoon. It’s the only way to cope with the surging cost and slim availability of housing on the island, he said.

No matter the cost, he needs workers. “So we fly them over every day,” said Foster.

But small airports and the regional carriers that are at the core of their traffic have been hit hard by rising costs and a national pilot shortage. Two airlines pulled out over the years, Colgan Air in 2010 and Island Airlines in 2016, leaving longtime stalwart Cape Air and Jet Blue with seasonal flights to New York as the only scheduled service.

Moreover, there’s an easy bus service on the Cape to the greater flight options at T.F. Green International Airport in Providence and Boston Logan International Airport. Even the rise of low-cost fast ferries to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard has sapped demand from people who used to fly to the islands.

The airport is owned by the town of Barnstable but does not rely on local taxes; a little more than half of its current $25 million annual budget comes from other government sources and much of the rest from income on its services.

Servis argues the airport is not a big burden on the local tax base, but rather an economic force on the Cape, supporting 1,700 jobs at the airport and associated businesses with a payroll of $73 million and nearly $160 million in economic output. It also receives income from leasing a 27-acre parcel to developer WS Development for retail and parking deals with the Steamship Authority.

Cape Air, which has been a tenant at the airport since its inception in 1989, has seen all the ups and downs. Its corporate office is located at the Hyannis airfield, but the carrier has survived the ever-changing economics of the airline industry by adding regional flights as far afield as the Caribbean and Montana. Its busiest service is between Nantucket and Boston, skipping over Hyannis altogether.

“We’d like to be doing more air service out of Hyannis,” said Cape Air chief executive Linda Markham. “Hopefully, someday, we will be able to get back to where we were.”

Still, the proposed expansion has some wondering who the airport is really for, and a few even float the long-shot idea of combining it with the airfield on Joint Base Cape Cod and redeveloping the Hyannis property for much-needed housing.

“They are subsidizing the airport’s ability to function, but function for what?” said Betty Ludtke, who was the lone member of the Barnstable Town Council to not support the expansion. “Some seasonal service to New York? I don’t know.”

Betty Ludtke posed outside the Barnstable Town Hall, near the Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis. VINCENT ALBAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Ludtke is a commercial airline pilot and spent 30 years in the Air Force. She worked on base realignments and closures. She’s seen this before.

“This is not the sky is falling,” Ludtke said. “This is done when missions realize exactly when changes happen, you realign your assets. You don’t try to save them.”

Tony Shepley, president of Shepley Wood Products, who sometimes flies employees to the islands on Cape Air, said the parking lot is nearly always empty whenever he drives by the airport.

“So here we have this $40 million beautiful airport. It’s really pretty underused,” he said. “It’s such a shame.”

The reality, Shepley said, is that flying out of the Cape has become too expensive for many of the people who live there. The average roundtrip ticket out of Hyannis —including during the slower off-season — is $255, for a flight that doesn’t go very far, according to the Bureau of Transportation.

And, to the neighbors, the airport is mainly a nuisance, one they fear will only get bigger if the runway expands. The planes flying over shouldn’t be going over a small seaside village, said Linda Bolliger, who leads the Hyannis Park Civic Association.

Residents sitting on a back patio in Hyannis Park on a recent afternoon discussed the impact of the constant roar of the airplanes flying overhead.

“I’ve definitely thought about moving,” said Steve Budreau, who lives in Hyannis Park. “Being retired, I don’t want to listen to this for the rest of my life. And I want to get out of here before the value of my property starts tanking.”

On hearing that, Budreau’s neighbor, Paul Harkins, said to him: “It’s too bad. You love it here.”

Airplanes at the Cape Cod Gateway Airport in Hyannis. VINCENT ALBAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Originally posted 2023-08-16 14:49:25.