Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lehigh Valley International Airport (KABE) may close Braden Airpark: Analysis concludes 80-acre strip in Forks Township costs too much to keep open - Allentown, Pennsylvania

By Matt Assad, Of The Morning Call

9:06 p.m. EDT, May 23, 2013

Braden Airpark, the small-plane airfield in Forks Township where thousands of pilots have learned to fly and dozens base their planes, could soon be closed.

Lehigh Valley International Airport officials Tuesday will recommend that the 80-acre air strip be shut down because it is a money drain on the cash-strapped airport authority's budget.

The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority is not expected to act on the matter Tuesday, but the airport staff's analysis that the 75-year-old airfield is not worth the expense of keeping it open will fall hard on the ears of local pilots who say airport administrators are being short-sighted.

"The authority has to look very closely at how it allocates its limited funds," said Charles Everett Jr., airport executive director. "We can ill afford to operate three airports, when we can accommodate all the planes at two."

The authority is dealing with a crushing combination of plummeting passenger traffic and finding a way to pay off the remaining $14 million of a $26 million court judgment against it for taking a developer's land in the 1990s.

Everett said if the authority board accepts the recommendation, all 49 small planes at Braden can be moved to LVIA or the 210-acre Queen City Airport in south Allentown. It would be a bitter pill for members of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association, who argue that Braden Airpark, along Sullivan Trail, isn't just a playground for hobbyist pilots. They maintain it promotes business in the region and is responsible for millions in indirect economic commerce in the form of fuel purchases, aircraft maintenance and employee salaries.

"I can't believe they're thinking about giving up this asset," said Erik Chuss, the Forks Township supervisor chairman who has a plane based at Braden. "The impact on this community is much greater than they are giving it credit for."

In 1938, Edwin Braden, a packaged-meat seller who was passionate about aviation, bought four small farm parcels, mapped out a grassy runway and opened the small-plane airport. It not only served as one of the first dealerships for Piper aircraft, but it was also a place where people could learn to fly, practice their hobby or keep the plane they use for transportation.

During World War II, students in a Lafayette College civilian pilot program used Braden to prepare to be pilots in the war. It remained family-owned until 1999, when the authority bought it.

Each year since, its 1,956-foot long strip has launched about 200 flights a week — most of them by flight school students — but also many by charter and recreational pilots. With Moyer Aviation operating it, the airport ran on a tight budget of roughly $56,000 per year, posting a surplus most years of a few thousand dollars.

But those numbers don't tell the full story, Everett said. When LVIA refused to give Vern Moyer a long-term lease in April, he took his aviation company that ran the flight school and aircraft maintenance center to Pocono Mountain Municipal Airport.

And with him went the $56,000 he paid each year to lease the airport. Now the authority has to pay staff to run the airport, but without the flight school and maintenance center, it doesn't get nearly enough lease payment from pilots to cover the costs.

In addition, that small surplus Braden posted each year didn't take into account the roughly $200,000 the authority spends to pay off the bonds that helped buy the airport for $2.4 million in 1999. Beyond that, if the airport stays open, its six hangars, terminal building and airport grounds will need millions of dollars in capital improvements. Those are expenses the authority can't afford, at least not when it has viable options for placing the 49 aircraft that use it, Everett said.

If Braden is closed, the 80 acres could be sold to help the airport pay its mounting debt, Everett said. The authority does not have a buyer for it, but Everett said that would likely change if the property went on the open market.

The authority board will get its first look at the staff recommendations Tuesday. Authority Chairman Tony Iannelli gave no time frame for when a decision would be made, but he said a final vote is unlikely Tuesday.

"From a business perspective, it's a money-loser that doesn't appear viable," Iannelli said. "But there is a community perspective to consider as well. I have a pretty good indication of what the staff will recommend, but I'm willing to keep an open mind."

Few people know that community perspective better than Paul Braden, Edwin Braden's son. The Lutheran minister's family ran the airport until it sold it to the airport in the hopes of preventing it from being turned into a shopping center or warehouses. They did it to preserve his father's legacy.

"[Lafayette] College would have paid us more, but we sold it to the airport because we wanted it to remain an airfield," Paul Braden said. "This is very disappointing. Once it's gone, it's gone forever."


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