Airport project nears takeoff

April 04, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN - Officials at Hagerstown Regional Airport busily are making plans for a groundbreaking ceremony April 14. It will mark the beginning of construction on improvements to the airport's main runway, a project designed to, among other things, stretch the 5,461-foot Runway 09-27 to 7,000 feet.

Getting to the point of breaking ground has been a slow and controversial process, and even now, opinions are mixed about whether the $60.2 million project, most of which will be paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration, is needed.

But when the Washington County Commissioners agreed March 16 to award a construction contract for the project's first phase, even Commissioner John C. Munson, one of its most vocal critics, conceded that the runway improvements were a done deal.


"I respect the majority of the vote," Munson said, adding that "it's too late to change it now."

Business incubator?

The latest numbers from the Maryland Aviation Administration show some 55,477 flight operations (takeoffs and landings) a year occurring at the county-owned Hagerstown Regional Airport, or an average of 152 per day.

Of those, 85 percent are general aviation flights (noncommercial, nonmilitary), 6 percent are military operations (including, Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said, operations involving Air Force One on an average of once per month), 5 percent are by air taxis (small, often chartered aircraft without a commercial schedule) and 3 percent are commercial.

The MAA report, researched and compiled by Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pa., estimates that currently, the airport directly or indirectly generates 831 jobs, $31.8 million in personal income, $48.1 million in revenue, $6.2 million in taxes and $7.5 million to the local economy in material purchases.

Those numbers reflect a marked increase in the airport's impact from a similar report released by the same group in 2001. At that time, the airport was credited with generating 562 jobs, $18.3 million in personal income, $26.4 million in revenue, $4.7 million in taxes and about $200,000 in local material purchases.

There are 150 T-Hangars at the airport, which are rented to private individuals and aviation-related businesses. All of them are occupied and have waiting lists, airport officials said.

What has decreased is commercial passenger use of the airport.

In 2003, nearly 16,000 passengers - an average of 44 per day - boarded flights departing Hagerstown Regional Airport. One of only three airports in the state approved to offer commercial passenger service, the airport schedules three round-trip flights per day to Pittsburgh International Airport through US Airways.

The number of passengers departing on flights from Hagerstown peaked at 38,037 in 1997, according to figures provided by airport management. At that time, US Airways also was providing flights to Baltimore, Motz said. Those flights were canceled at the end of 1997 because of problems with the airline's carrier, New Mexico-based Mesa Airlines.

In the post-9/11 market, Boston-Maine Airways of Portsmouth, N.H., began offering state-subsidized Hagerstown-to-Baltimore flights in December 2001. But because of price and inconvenience - the airline offered no direct connections at Baltimore-Washington International, so passengers had to go through security again, Motz said - the Baltimore shuttle never attracted many customers. It was discontinued after 18 months.

Why expand?

Motz maintains that misconceptions about the runway project abound, right down to what people call it.

"It's actually the runway improvement program," she said. "Everybody has tagged it the runway extension program."

Either way, extending the runway has been discussed in some form since the late 1980s, and the current project had its genesis in ongoing maintenance plans for the airport's runways, Motz said.

Airport officials had been obliged to consider the long-term rehabilitation of Runway 09-27, last paved in the late 1980s, she said.

"As we looked at it, one of the things the FAA insists on is bringing it up to latest mandates," Motz said.

One of those mandates, as she frequently has repeated over the life of the debate, is the inclusion of a 1,000-foot safety area at each end of the runway.

To meet that requirement, "we either had to extend the pavement or lose 1,000 feet of the runway," Motz said.

A runway length analysis was prepared in 2000 and submitted to the FAA, according to Mahesh Kukata, airport project manager for the Hunt Valley, Md., office of URS Corporation, a planning and design firm. The FAA "said reducing the runway length was not feasible," Kukata said.

Commercial air service no longer would be possible at that point, Motz and County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

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