HARTFORD — A federal appeals court on Tuesday directed a judge to overturn a Connecticut law that limits the length of Tweed-New Haven Airport’s main runway, handing the small public airport a victory in its attempts to expand airline service.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the 2009 state law is pre-empted by federal aviation law, overturning a 2017 ruling by a federal magistrate judge in Hartford who upheld the state law.
Officials and lawyers for the airport have argued the state law that limits Tweed’s main runway to its current 5,600 feet (1,707 meters) has prevented the airport from drawing more commercial airlines and flights, because the runway is too short for most commercial planes to take off. The runway is one of the shortest commercial airport runways in the country. Officials have proposed lengthening Runway 2/20 to about 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) on existing airport property.
At Tweed, American Airlines currently offers daily flights to and from Philadelphia and weekly flights to and from Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It’s a great victory for the southern part of Connecticut, which for so long has been hoping for more service options,” said Hugh Manke, an attorney for the law firm Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, which represents the airport. “The decision allows us to move ahead with the development and expansion of the runway, which will lead to an expansion of services.”
Manke said Allegiant Air has told Tweed officials that it would provide service to and from Orlando, Florida, if the runway is lengthened.
State Attorney General William Tong’s office said in a statement that officials are reviewing the ruling and will decide whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2002, the state and the Federal Aviation Administration approved a master plan for Tweed that included extending the main runway to 7,200 feet. The 2009 state law was passed as part of a large state budget bill — without a public hearing — as New Haven-area lawmakers said they were concerned a longer runway and more air traffic at Tweed would harm nearby residents’ quality of life and the environment.
State Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, called for the attorney general’s office to appeal the decision.
“The strong residential neighborhoods around Tweed must be protected from any damaging impact caused by the potential overruling of state law,” he said in a joint statement with Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano.
Fasano, of North Haven, alleged airport and New Haven officials “stabbed the community in the back” by reneging on a contract between the airport, New Haven and East Haven that included a runway length restriction. He believes the court ruling cannot invalidate that contract.
New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and area business leaders praised the court decision. Harp said New Haven-area residents deserve better airline services. Many of the region’s residents travel out of either Bradley International Airport north of Hartford or the airports in New York and New Jersey.
The appellate court judges, Barrington Parker, Robert Sack and Denny Chin, ruled that state laws cannot interfere with the Federal Aviation Act, which regulates commercial airports.
“This localized, state-created limitation is incompatible with the FAAct’s objective of establishing ‘a uniform and exclusive system of federal regulation in the field of air safety,’” Parker wrote in the decision. “If every state were free to control the lengths of runways within its boundaries, this Congressional objective could never be achieved.”
Tweed-New Haven Airport lies in both New Haven and East Haven along Long Island Sound and is run by an airport authority appointed by mayors of both municipalities.
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