Empty flights leave rural airports stranded


January 6th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Several airports in Nebraska have seen dwindling numbers of passengers – and, consequently, dwindling federal subsidies.

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If you were to walk into Omaha’s Eppley Airport terminal during the hectic holiday season, you’d encounter all the sights and sounds you’d normally expect: passengers coming and going, families reuniting and couples embracing.

Omaha Eppley Airport's enplanement figure, which represents the total number of passengers boarding at an airport, has remained relatively strong at nearly 2,100,000 for 2010 alone. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

For Chris Martin, director of operations for Eppley, the high volume of passengers has shown it’s been business as usual for the largest airport within the state of Nebraska.

“Overall, we’ve done very well, frankly, with the passengers that we do have,” Martin remarked. “The last numbers that I’ve got for the complete year was 2010, and we had almost 2,100,000 enplanements.”

Martin explained that enplanement figure, which represents the total number of passengers boarding at an airport, has remained relatively strong, despite a slow economy.

But that hasn’t been the case for some other Nebraska airports.

Touching down at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff, you’d find a much different picture than at Eppley. Western Nebraska Regional Airport, or WNRA, began commercial service in 1940, and has predominantly provided passenger flights to and from Denver. WNRA is currently classified as a primary airport by the Federal Aviation Administration, meaning that the airport serves at least 10,000 passengers per year. That figure has been important because it determines federal subsidies to smaller airports through the FAA’s Aviation Improvement Program. According to WNRA Director Darwin Skelton, those subsidies have been a lifeline for the small airport.

The chart above is based on information on Nebraska airports provided by the FAA's 2010 Primary, Non-Primary, Commercial Service, and General Aviation Airports by State report; not all Nebraska airports were included. (Graph by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News. Click to enlarge)

“What comes along with being a primary airport (is) you get a million dollars a year to do safety items with,” Skelton said. “Whether it’s runway repair or equipment, snow removal equipment, those kinds of things. If you do not make the 10,000 boardings, then you receive only $150,000 a year and you become a non-primary (airport).”

And that change in status – and the accompanying change in funding – inevitably impacts planned aviation projects.

“When you’re used to getting a million dollars a year, and you’ve scheduled your AIP projects for the next 20 years, anticipating that you’re going to board 10,000 people, and suddenly the numbers fall below that, and now you’re only receiving $150,000 — it kind of throws things into a quandary a little bit,” he said.

WNRA boarded 9,864 passengers in 2010, falling short of the mark by 136 people. 2011 figures aren’t available yet, but Skelton has predicted the airport will be about 400 enplanements short. He stresses that a “non-primary” label for WNRA will also make it harder to secure federal funding that’s not specifically tied to boarding numbers.

This problem, however, is a new one for rural airports within Nebraska and across the United States. From the fallout of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to a struggling economy, airports have had trouble attracting enough passengers to maintain primary status. Just ask North Platte Regional AirportDirector Mike Sharkey. He knows all too well the ramifications of dropping to non-primary status.

Graph by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News. Click to enlarge.

“Well, we were a primary airport three years ago, and then four years ago,” Sharkey recalled. As a primary airport, “we put in a parallel taxiway to our secondary runway, plus we’ve just finished a project this year, to resurface and rehab that same runway. So we’ve been really busy up till this year. But next year we obviously won’t have those kinds of funds to work with.”

Like Scottsbluff’s airport, North Platte’s has fallen short of the FAA’s enplanement quota, reaching an estimated 9,000 passengers for 2011. Sharkey said that while the infrastructure of the airfield is in satisfactory condition, a large obstacle will be finding the proper federal funding for future projects.

It hasn’t helped that non-primary airports are seen as, well, secondary to primary airports.

“It certainly is a setback as far as trying to maintain the infrastructure of the airport and do improvements that are required,” Sharkey said. “In some cases you may submit (a request for funds) and be told by the FAA that they don’t have any more money in the coffer, and to resubmit next year. So it’s a good thing to be a primary airport.”

But rural airports across the U.S. might soon get a second wind.

Part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill currently before Congress would allow airports that met their 2008 passenger quotas to be eligible for a kind of backpay for 2009 and 2010.

The bill has been approved by the U.S. Senate, but is stalled in the House. If it were to advance, it would be the next step in a series of moratoriums passed over the last decade to help keep rural airports alive.

And according to Skelton with the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff, those airports represent a pivotal part of rural communities, particularly on an economic level.

“It’s important for people to understand that and realize that,” he said. “And when they come in and do a project in a small community, like us, for example, probably 90 percent of the money that is spent on this airport stays in this community because we have contractors that are able to do the work. Thus, it really helps to continue and move money around the community for economic development.”

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