Historically, More Hanscom Hangars Don’t Mean Fewer Jets, HFAC Chair Says

April 20, 2023
Map of proposed development from Environmental Notification Form for L.G. Hanscom Field North Airfield Development, created by engineering firm VHB. Courtesy Image.

Prospects for a massive complex of hangars at Hanscom Field near Hartwell Road won’t take shape for several more months as the developers address scores of issues raised by a state agency as part of an environmental process. 

But the chair of the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission is pushing ahead with his own schedule of discussions of topics raised in an impact review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.

And Christopher Eliot’s first conclusion is that there is no historic evidence showing that expanded hangar capacity reduces jet aircraft operations at the airport.

Eliot shared his methodology at Tuesday’s HFAC meeting, the first of five monthly discussions on 10 major points in the MEPA scope.

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Two limited liability corporations have joined forces to propose more than 400,000 square feet of hangar space on the so-called North Airfield, which is accessible off Hartwell Road across from the Edge sports center. 

In addition, 87,000 additional square feet are proposed for the adjacent Navy hangar, which would be renovated under the plan.

The review under MEPA generated a broad range of questions many of which were offered during public meetings by neighbors, government officials, and advocacy groups. The developer must address these to receive approval for an environmental notification form from state government.

One of the rationales for the size of the project was the reduction of so-called ferry flights. According to the Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns Hanscom Field, insufficient hangar space results in unnecessary takeoffs and landings, as jet pilots deliver passengers and then depart for overnight aircraft accommodations elsewhere. So, more hangars will actually reduce operations, Massport says.

But Eliot, who lives in Lincoln, presented data comparing jet traffic in years following two recent hangar expansions, and the number of operations was virtually unchanged the following year.

Total Hanscom takeoffs and landings declined both in 2015 and 2018, Eliot said, but that was because of fewer single-engine flights. 

“There’s nothing about this chart that gives me any reason to believe that the North Airfield space will influence jet operations at Hanscom Field,” he said. 

The MEPA scope called for the proponents to produce data validating the need resulting from the ferry flights, and suggested that if the demand isn’t apparent, the size of the project could be reduced. Four years ago, Massport released a request for proposals for 165,000 square feet of hangars, but there were no bidders.

Eliot called the expansion “essentially valet parking for jet airplanes. The theory is that if we build more hangars, we stop the ferry flights and reduce the noise.” However, he continued, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “By making the airport more attractive to base aircraft, expanding hangar space is eventually going to expand operations,” he observed.

The chair told the commission he plans to contact the three fixed-based operators at Hanscom Field to try to learn the size of their waiting lists for hangars. 

He acknowledged that eventually the data will be in the environmental notification form, expected in the fall.

Thomas Hirsch of Bedford, who represents pilots on the commission, noted that there are a number of variables in an owner’s decision on where to store aircraft, such as fuel fees, rental charges, and state tax policies. “It’s really a matter of economics,” he said.

Hirsch also noted that “there are a lot of good things that can come from ferry flights,” such as delivery of a medical expert to handle a specific case.

Eliot pointed out that there are people who are concerned that if the hangar proposal is withdrawn, “what could follow could be worse, like a FedEx terminal.” Twenty years ago, FedEx pulled back from plans to establish cargo operations at Hanscom after community opposition, led by Save Our Heritage, the Concord-based group that is also opposed to the current hangar plan.

Eliot also cited the prospects for “urban air mobility,” which according to the Federal Aviation Administration uses “highly automated aircraft that will operate and transport passengers or cargo at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas.”

The vehicles, some of which are electric, “are built for short fights at relatively slow speeds,” Hirsch commented. “They are more expensive than helicopters, but you make it up in volume.”

Eliot said he could envision a North Airfield hub for these, shuttling between Hanscom and Logan International Airport in East Boston.

The commission’s May 16 agenda will include a look at the hangar proposal’s impact on forests and wildlife, as well as private jet travel. Other topics are: June 20, the impact of noise close to the project and regionally; July 16, fuel farm, and the impact on historic sites and Bedford infrastructure, and Sept 19, aviation needs and expected north airfield revenue.

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