Are you flying ORH for the first time?
This is the first one of my posts where I am a little nervous since I want to do my home airport right! Significant changes have occurred atop Airport Hill in the past 5-10 years.
Since being taken over by the Massachusetts Port Authority, three major carriers have launched service to Worcester Regional Airport - what used to be an airport essentially sitting idle. Now with four flights per day, two of which are to connection hubs in New York City, the number of cities you can reach out of Worcester seemingly grows by the day. JetBlue will also launch the first flights connecting Worcester to Fort Myers’ Southwest Florida International Airport in January 2024.
There are obvious caveats in what you are about to read. Yes, I know that much of what Worcester offers results from influential politics. For this reason, industry analysts often put Worcester’s performance under a microscope. However, everything is still a business, and for over a decade, the responsibility has been to turn Worcester into a place where airlines can make money.
Over the Years
Unfortunately, Worcester Regional Airport has historically struggled to maintain scheduled commercial air service since the early 2000s. This was mainly because of limited infrastructure, particularly the lack of an advanced CAT III landing system, the airport's susceptibility to foggy weather, and fierce competition. Boston Logan International Airport aside, three decent-sized airports are within an hour’s drive of Worcester - Hartford/Springfield, Manchester, and Providence.
Metro-Worcester residents have become conditioned to incorporate a lengthy commute to accommodate their air travel needs. The City did attract a couple of attempts at service to Florida, most notably through the virtual airline Direct Air. The performance of Direct Air’s networks was critical to the airport eventually landing JetBlue Airways in 2013 with nonstop service to Orlando-MCO and Fort Lauderdale. Regardless of these viable routes, Worcester travelers have not had local connection options until recently.
I am a big fan of the service to LaGuardia and Kennedy, admittedly biased since I currently live in the Greater New York City area, but also because it gives Worcester air access to the largest metropolitan area in the country with a population of almost 20 million.
If Worcester is going to succeed, the airport needs to be different from its competitors, and service to New York City provides a reliable flight option to compete in one of the busiest travel corridors in the world, also giving Worcester residents a solid selection of connection options, particularly domestically.
Growing up, I took just how nice Worcester’s terminal is for granted. A short walk from either parking lot, the airport is so lovely it has attracted several movie shoots, including Captain Phillips and Knight and Day. Equipped with four jetbridges and two hardstands, personal space is never a problem. The TSA checkpoint is the only mildly cramped place at the top of the escalators. However, short-term plans exist to build a more efficient checkpoint by adjusting the location and creating even more room for passengers in the waiting area.
When I was young, there was a myth that the airport was difficult to reach from major highways. While working at Worcester and talking to several employees since I left, the number of complaints about Worcester Regional Airport’s location has been almost zero. Especially now that we live in the days of GPS technology, on most days, the airport is a 10-minute drive from either I-290 or I-90 (“The Pike”), which puts Worcester in an excellent position to grow a customer base in the Metro-West Boston area.
The best part about the layout is its simplicity. Whether you are arriving or departing, you can process through the terminal faster than any other airport in New England. Rest assured, if you fly out of Worcester Regional Airport, you will not be required to expend much energy getting from point to point. The gate areas have sufficient seating, with a little spot past security for a quick bite. TSA PreCheck is also available for enrolled customers, and if things weren’t simple enough, self-service kiosks are also located by the check-in counters.
Photo: The Boston Globe.
When Massport took over the airport in 2010, it knew part of its responsibility would be to reverse Worcester Regional Airport’s poor reputation of reliability. Located on top of the tallest hill in the City, the airport can be subject to foggy weather, particularly in October and March during transitional weather periods. The previous airport operator, the City of Worcester, openly admits they were unprepared to run a next-level airport. This can be evidenced by their historical lack of investment in proper infrastructure for flight operations in low visibility.
Since going live in 2018, the CAT III instrument landing system, the most advanced of its kind, has improved flight reliability drastically. JetBlue aircraft can land in “zero-zero” visibility, so over the past three years, the New York-JFK flight had grown a decent showing after a plodding start. While the regional jets Delta and American fly are not entirely as equipped, they can still fly very close to zero visibility and are over three times as capable as in previous years.
Specifically, regardless of their capability, all aircraft historically needed 4000’ of horizontal visibility down the runway even to attempt to land. Now, the aircraft can safely continue an extra 100’ vertically with horizontal visibility down to 1200’ - a significant difference. The results speak for themselves; between all flights, Worcester posted its best year for reliability in its history and cumulatively was one of the best-performing airports in the region. In February alone, a month that typically wreaks havoc with winter weather, American completed every flight on time.
Where Can I Get to from ORH?
While there is undoubtedly more work to do, Worcester is at least set up with a foundation of air service that can be built upon long-term. Below, I detail the travel options through Worcester and will update the post as time progresses.
Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, & Orlando-MCO.
Without JetBlue, who knows where the airport would stand today? Their 2013 launch marked the beginning of a new era, and service to Florida hit the ground running. Just announcing their intention to serve the airport was grounds for Massport to install the needed infrastructure improvements to distance themselves from a troubled past.
In the Summer of 2022, performance was formidable enough that Worcester was upgraded to the larger Airbus A320 aircraft - a much more comfortable experience than the previous Embraer 190s with TVs that actually work. JetBlue also recently relaunched flights to Orlando-MCO using A320s, where the airline has a brand new state-of-the-art home in Terminal C.
Unfortunately, JetBlue’s connection service to New York-JFK is suspended indefinitely. The decision was made amid systematic uncertainty with the Northeast Alliance and network restructuring to meet slot allocations at Kennedy. No one can question that the New York-JFK flights started slowly, and performance still left much to be desired. But, since coming back after COVID with a much better schedule, the morning flights usually left 80-100% full, with the afternoon flight showing signs of life.
New York City - John F. Kennedy International Airport
In 2018, American Airlines announced they would begin service between Worcester and Philadelphia on 50-seat Embraer 145s. Things got off to a rocky start, with American reducing the flight schedule within six months of starting service (without even notifying Massport!). Still, leading up to the onset of the pandemic, load factors had continued to rise. American returned after an extended hiatus with a rather inconvenienced flight time - passengers would not arrive at their gate in Philadelphia until after 9 PM local time. By then, it was impossible to connect to much of anything.
To complement JetBlue’s existing shuttle service to New York-JFK, American elected to shift this flight to Kennedy as part of the Northeast Alliance, a joint venture between the two carriers. Performance on these flights has been brutal, to say the least, mainly due to American’s reduced network out of Kennedy (they deferred many routes to JetBlue, which for some reason, you cannot book on at the moment through ORH in American’s system).
Also, returning to Worcester from international flights is difficult, which is most of what American has to offer out of Kennedy present day. Not all, but most international flights arrive in the early evening. By then, the American flight had already flown to Worcester and returned. This would have been a good fit for the JetBlue overnight flight with a codeshare. However, it was also not an option in American’s booking system.
There is much in the air as to how things will shake out now that the Northeast Alliance was successfully voided. However, as American returns many of their organic flights to Kennedy, expect the numbers to improve over time.
New York City - LaGuardia Airport
Delta, the more recent entrant into the Worcester market, initially launched flights between Worcester and Detroit in 2019. Following their return from the pandemic, service was shifted to New York-LaGuardia - a better fit for Central Mass travelers.
Aside from JetBlue’s direct service, Delta provides the most attractive option out of Worcester to Florida, which should theoretically be enough to sustain the flight. The aircraft used on the route is the Bombardier CRJ-900, an upgrade from the cramped Bombardier CRJ-200s they used to run to Detroit.
The flight could use a second daily frequency to open up connection options, as connecting to and from Worcester can sometimes be challenging. Especially for travelers looking to get to Florida early, establishing an overnight option would do wonders for the current performance, which is so-so.
If You Build it, They Will Come.
Look, there is no question that Worcester is the benefactor of a highly political climate. At best, it is debatable whether the current air carriers would have launched service to Worcester at all had Massport not taken over ownership. Critics quickly point out this fact, but it is what it is.
Over the years, the City had been the punchline of many jokes. However, times are changing. Worcester, nicknamed “The Heart of the Commonwealth,” is New England’s second-largest City by population behind Boston, at 205,918 in 2021. Less than a decade ago, that number sat closer to 190,000. According to U.S. News & World Report, Worcester is #69 in their “Top 150 Places to Live” for 2022-2023.
Every time I visit home, I am amazed by how much work is going on to improve the local community. Further, the “I-495 Corridor” is booming and will only grow as companies get priced outside Boston’s city limits.
Ideally, Massport would like Worcester to become Boston residents’ convenient alternative to Logan. Take, for example, the relocation of the Boston Red Sox AAA minor-league affiliate from Pawtucket, RI, to Worcester. Many people were skeptical of attendance at first. Still, you must consider that the City is not just central to the state of Massachusetts - the following other large cities are approximately a one-hour car ride away:
The results? Worcester led all of the minor leagues, a total of 120 teams nationwide, in attendance in their second year (the first full year with people in the stands since the pandemic). I find this comparable since the metric the WooSox and the airport are trying to attain is the same in nature.
For Worcester to thrive, marketing efforts must tap into other catchment areas - particularly Metro-West Boston. Each of the cities above has its own airport. However, attracting a little from each will bolster the primary catchment area of Central MA - a metropolitan population of 978,529 in 2021, good for 57th in the country.
Worcester also faces an internal struggle, as most residents are still conditioned to travel to Boston Logan in favor of direct flights, despite having to trek through Boston traffic to pay some of the nation’s highest parking fees. Although the New York City flights are not ideally set up for connections, they are viable enough that performance should be much better.
Unfortunately, as a New York City resident, I find that there is still much work left to do. A colleague had worked in Leominster, a decent-sized city approximately 15-20 minutes up the road, for almost three years without ever knowing he could have flown home when visiting family out of Worcester Regional Airport.
Thankfully, this problem is entirely solvable and will take less time than you think. Successful marketing campaigns have turned once-quiet airfields into niche places to do business in little time, such as Sarasota, F.L., and Portland, M.E.
Avelo Airlines, a carrier that would fit nicely in Worcester, has made a significant marketing push on the Southern coast of Connecticut and is a good case study for how crucial marketing is to success. Historically, New Haven, an airport that only served Philadelphia with three 50-seat regional jets daily, is pushing almost fifteen daily flights on Boeing 737 aircraft.
Only a couple of years ago, the airport enplaned around 30,000 passengers. New Haven is set to enplane almost half a million passengers this year! These passengers did not appear out of nowhere - presumably, approximately 75% of them were conditioned to drive 1-2 hours to either New York City or Windsor Locks, CT, home of Bradley International Airport, for their air travel needs. What once were Bradley billboards along I-95 now advertise one of over a dozen cities Avelo offers from Tweed.
ORH Moving Forward
There is a lot of uncertainty about the airport’s future in an exciting way. Worcester has proven a foundation of long-term success in its service to Florida. I expect the upcoming flights to Fort Myers to be a massive success. Eventually, Worcester will cover each region of Florida (West, Central, East).
The short-term focus should be gaining back connecting travelers through New York City, be it through Kennedy or LaGuardia. Most small airports have effective service to major hubs that loyal customers will prefer over direct flights. The convenience of driving to Worcester and being at your gate in ten minutes is unmistakable. It just comes down to clearly defining this value proposition to a larger population.
This may seem paradoxical, but Massport must balance the politics and convince airlines to act in their best interest. For example, airlines will want to leverage the highest return in exchange for adding a second daily frequency to New York. However, at the same time, they must also admit that two flights are more conducive to financial sustainability.
Certainly, Worcester is not trying to become the second-largest airport in the region. But, they are certainly on their way to providing Central Mass and Metro-Boston passengers with reliable business and leisure flights.