FAIRFIELD COUNTY residents accustomed to using LaGuardia, Kennedy or Newark airports are being asked to consider an alternative that most probably thought made no sense: Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, about 20 minutes north of Hartford.
Beginning this month commuters tuning into their radios in Bridgeport, New Haven and Danbury during morning and afternoon rush hours will hear commercials boasting Bradley's ''hassle-free'' access. Buses will also feature advertisements meant to entice residents along the shoreline and in other southern and western Connecticut towns into giving the state's largest airport a try.
''We want to be sure the folks in Fairfield County are aware of the services we have at Bradley. It's an easy-access airport,'' said Robert F. Juliano, the head of the State Department of Transportation's bureau of aviation and ports. ''A lot of people in Fairfield County really don't realize how large the airport is, the frequency of flights and the number of airlines servicing Bradley.''
The push to increase passenger traffic from the southern part of the state arrives amid what is turning into a record year for air travel at the nearly 50-year-old airport. After posting its busiest year ever in 1995, with more than 5.1 million passengers, Bradley has recorded a 7.4 percent increase in passenger traffic this year.
Cargo traffic has increased by better than a third over last year, airport officials said, and it is expected to continue to grow with the inauguration in August of three 747 international flights a week to Manchester, England, and Luxembourg. Each flight can carry up to 100 tons of freight, and Mr. Juliano said most flights are running about 90 percent full, primarily with imports and exports of electronic components.
''People are discovering us. We're halfway between New York and Boston. Rather than fly into both airports, companies can cut their expenses by flying straight into Bradley,'' said Andre J. Libert, Bradley's director of marketing and development. Earlier this year, Continental Airlines introduced daily nonstop service to Houston, United Airlines added nonstop service to Denver, and American Airlines offered nonstop service to Dallas. The airport also has daily nonstop flights to Puerto Rico and on to other Caribbean islands. A spokesman for USAir, the busiest airline at Bradley, said coast-to-coast-service from Hartford was unlikely until demand grew enough to fill a jetliner. Despite the lack of nonstop service to the West Coast and no regularly scheduled international flights (except to Canada), promoters of Bradley are betting that other conveniences, including less highway traffic, no tolls and cheaper parking fees, will lure many travelers away from New York.
The distance between Bridgeport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, for example, is the same as between Bridgeport and Bradley: 65 miles. Danbury is a closer to J.F.K. (66 miles) but not by much (70 miles to Bradley). Greenwich and Stamford obviously are closer to Kennedy and LaGuardia, but state airport officials said there's always a good chance travelers will encounter more rush hour traffic and congestion heading into New York, particularly at the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges.
Estimated time to get from Bridgeport to Bradley or Bridgeport to New York is the same, 1 hour and 15 minutes, barring traffic slow-ups. Without traffic, it takes motorists one hour to get from Danbury to New York airports; 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to Bradley.
Bradley officials acknowledge that Fairfield County residents are inclined to think of New York first, in part because of their perception that ''bigger is better,'' said Mr. Libert. ''However, many people do not realize that Bradley is the second largest airport in New England'' -- after Boston's Logan International.''
To try to change perceptions, airport officials have hired the Hartford advertising and public relations firm of O'Neal & Prelle, at a cost of about $170,000 to reach the more than 700,000 Fairfield County adults. The campaign is also targeting about 200,000 adults in New London County and about 600,000 in Worcester County, Mass. In all, Connecticut transportation officials estimate that close to 2 million passengers from Connecticut fly from one of five airports other than Bradley, including Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, N.Y., and Westchester County Airport.
Over the past decade, said Mr. Juliano, the head of operations, Bradley has more than doubled the number of flights that depart and arrive daily, to 275. And he said that when other airports, including those in New York and Boston are closed during winter storms or because of fog, Bradley often is the only Northeast airport open, a result of its location inland, and because its fewer runways are faster to clean.
Last winter, for example, a record 115 inches of snow fell at Bradley (the state average is 47 inches), but the airport was only closed for 28 hours, ''and 12 of those hours were during the Blizzard of '96,'' recalled Mr. Juliano. ''We were the last to close and the first to open.''
Airport officials also hired a Washington, D.C., international air service consultant, Campbell Aviation Group, to explore ways to add trans-Atlantic passenger service to Bradley. Although charter flights regularly use the airport, and the Concorde is often diverted to Bradley because of headwinds, there are no regularly scheduled overseas flights.
Mr. Juliano said the airport would like to see international service from Bradley. A recent survey showed that Connecticut ranked in the top five states on a per capita basis for United States passports issued, and the presumption is that most of those airbound residents are flying from Kennedy or Newark. LaGuardia is restricted to flights of no more than 1,500 miles, to encourage domestic service. Bradley, however, has no such restrictions.