“The airport has been around since the 1920s,” manager Katie Servis told the Times during a recent exclusive tour of the facility. “This is an airport that has been considered one of the most important to the Cape and Islands.”
Centrally located and strategically positioned, the airport seems like it would be a hub for transportation to and from the region — or at the very least, a viable alternative given the lack of consistent commuter rail service and the 88-year-old canal bridges, with their continual traffic woes.
But Gateway Airport has seen a significant decline in overall flight operations and passenger travel over the last decade.
The decline in operations, coupled with environmental concerns regarding FAA-required fire fighting foams containing PFAS, has led some residents in the surrounding community to be skeptical of the airport’s necessity and overall utility — in some cases calling for its closure in the face of infrastructure upgrade efforts like the proposed $22 million runway expansion.
But when it comes to decreased commercial travel, Gateway isn’t necessarily alone.
Other airports in the Cape and Islands region, including Nantucket Memorial Airport and Martha’s Vineyard Airport, have also seen a decline in overall take-offs and landings in recent years, according to data from the FAA.
At Nantucket Memorial Airport, which is the busiest of the three as far as landings and takeoffs go, there has been a 54% decline in operations between 2012 and 2022, FAA data shows. At Gateway Airport there has been a 48% decline.
Martha’s Vineyard Airport has remained largely consistent, albeit with significantly lower numbers over the last 10 years compared to Nantucket and Gateway. The Vineyard’s airport had 42,008 operations in 2012 and 41,571 operations in 2022, according to the FAA.
By comparison, in 2012, Nantucket had 132,721 operations and Gateway had 103,711.
“In the industry, airlines are putting larger aircraft onto smaller routes, so they’re flying fewer operations but carrying the same or more people,” Nantucket Memorial Airport manager Noah Karberg said. “That’s a reduction in operations that’s tenfold, instead of having 20 operations in-and-out on a nine-seater aircraft, you have two (operations) on a 100-seater aircraft.”
Karberg said an industry-wide shortage of pilots, crew and airframe mechanics have also led to a spike in operating costs for airlines, and thus ticket rate hikes for regional flights.
Cape Cod Gateway Airport runway extension
Central to some of the nearby residents’ concerns is a proposed $22 million extension of the northwest-pointing runway, which Servis said is necessary to accommodate the needs of existing aircraft that use the facility.
“It’s operable, but not efficient,” Servis said of the existing 5,253-foot runway. “We have a family of aircraft that use this airport on a regular basis, and in order for them to be more efficient, we are looking at that extension in order to accommodate them.”
JetBlue and Cape Air are the only two commercial airlines that make flights in-and-out of Gateway Airport at the moment. JetBlue has two daily flights from May through September, Servis said, while Cape Air makes anywhere from five to seven daily flights year-round.
Despite a steady growth in passenger flight travel on Cape Air since 2020, figures provided by Gateway Airport show the airline’s passenger numbers are down 63% from 2012 — with airport passenger activity overall having declined by 93% since 2007. Meanwhile, private and charter flights are up by nearly half of what they were a decade ago.
“Seeing the 93% drop in passenger traffic and the enormous growth in corporate jets, I look at that and I see corporate welfare,” said Barnstable Town Councilor Betty Ludtke. “Then I think of the amount of federal money that’s gone into that airport; it’s basically to allow people with private jets to enjoy their vacation homes.”
Servis said the proposed extension, taking place within airport property, would extend the northern end of the runway about 800 feet for aircraft taking off. But she said landing aircraft would only be permitted to use about 400 feet — the idea being to mitigate their impact.
“What we were trying to do is make sure that the community was least disrupted,” Servis said, adding the addition of 800 feet for departing planes allows heavier aircraft to get higher above residential communities in the direct flight path, like Hyannis Park, quicker and earlier.
The Federal Aviation Administration will provide 90% of the funding for the project, with the remaining 10% coming equally from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division and the airport.
How is the Hyannis airport funded?
The portion coming from the airport toward the extension project will be funded by fuel sales and land lease agreements that Gateway Airport manages, Servis said. The airport also owns and leases out K-Mart Plaza.
“We’re glorified landlords,” she said. “We set fees to sell jet fuel, we set fees to lease out buildings or land to different tenants that want to use them … and that goes into our enterprise fund.”
Gateway Airport is owned by the town of Barnstable and is managed by a town council-appointed Airport Commission. Despite being under town jurisdiction, Servis said the airport operates with an enterprise fund and thus doesn’t take any tax dollars from the residents of Barnstable.
Nantucket is another airport that operates similarly, said Karberg, the Nantucket Airport manager. He said the airport has managed to survive the decrease in operations because of this model.
“We’re an airport that owns and operates our own fixed-base operations,” Karberg said. “We also have the support of corporate general aviation fuel sales, we rent land and we do a lot of other different diversified things to generate revenue.”
PFAS from the airport have crept toward Cape water sources
At a public meeting at Barnstable Town Hall in August, an environmental consultancy working for Gateway Airport presented their per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances mitigation efforts to members of the public.
A known PFAS plume had sunk into the soil on airport property as a result of a firefighting foam required by the FAA that was intermittently sprayed for training drills and emergency purposes. The plume had seeped into the groundwater and had drifted into the path of a water well within the Maher Filtration Plant system, which provides areas in Hyannis with drinking water. Another plume, stemming from the Barnstable Fire Training Academy, was also discovered.
As a result of the PFAS contamination, the airport installed a type of cap between contaminated soil and groundwater. The caps are thick, PFAS-free plastic tarps that prevent water from infiltrating into the contaminated soil and carrying the PFAS into the groundwater.
Despite the clean-up and mitigation efforts, PFAS has traveled toward sources of water for Cape residents living near the vicinity. One such place is Mill Creek and Mill Pond located within the Hyannis Park neighborhood in Yarmouth.
“We can’t swim in here anymore,” President of the Hyannis Park Civic Association Linda Bollinger said in an interview with the Times, pointing to the body of water where Mill Creek empties out.
Bollinger, who has been a central figure involved in advocating for a more thorough clean-up effort on behalf of the residents of Hyannis Park for nearly two years, said another larger plume is also issuing from the Barnstable Fire Training Academy. She said she would like to see a more collaborative effort on the part of the airport and the Fire Training Academy.
“It’s not going to happen overnight even though we’d like things to happen right away,” she said. “There’s a lot of money involved in the cleanup effort, so we have to be patient.”
Geoff Freeman, director of Martha’s Vineyard Airport, said PFAS emanating from and originating on airport property is an “industry-wide issue.”
“We were one of the first entities in the Commonwealth back in 2017 to be working with environmental engineers who advised us of an emerging hazard, which was the PFAS chemicals,” Freeman said.
Elevated levels of PFAS were discovered in wells near the residential area of West Tisbury, Freeman said. As soon as testing began, he said they ceased spraying foam and opted for alternative ways of conducting the annual training required by the FAA.
Similarly, Servis said Gateway Airport does not spray foam and the cleanup effort is ongoing.
Can Cape Cod Gateway Airport move to Joint Base Cape Cod?
Ludtke, the Barnstable town councilor, is at the helm of a community-involved effort to call for a regional transportation study that would review the possibility of closing down the airport’s current location and moving the facilities and infrastructure to Joint Base Cape Cod.
“I’m not necessarily saying to do it,” Ludtke said of the idea of moving the airport. “What I’m saying is there needs to be a study, a regional study, to look at the dynamics of air, sea and rail travel on the Cape and how each impacts each other.”
The study would also aim to investigate the possibility of utilizing the land that Gateway Airport currently sits on for other purposes, such as housing, Ludtke said.
“Joint Base have the air assets, they have longer runways than Gateway could ever build in a lifetime because they don’t have the land,” Ludtke said, pointing to the long and unused runways on the base.
Don Veitch, a spokesperson for Joint Base Cape Cod, said in an email he could not help the Times with information about this situation.
Servis said the costs of relocating to the Joint Base would far exceed their capacity to fund the relocation and merger, in part because of the large amount of infrastructure that would need to be constructed on the base.
“We would have to most likely relocate our tenants, we would probably have to buy them out or relocate them over there and build new facilities for them,” Servis said. “Whatever is here, terminals, hangars, runways, taxiways, all of the infrastructure that’s associated with it would have to be recreated over at Joint Base Cape Cod.”
Walker Armstrong reports on all things Cape and Islands, primarily focusing on transportation and the Joint Base Cape Cod military base. Contact him at WArmstrong@capecodonline.com. Follow him on Twitter:@jd__walker.
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