Sunday, October 12, 2014

EDITORIAL: Keeping Braden Airpark (N43) flying is the best option

Never has a losing proposition looked so attractive. After circling over the gap in Braden Airpark's financial stability for months, a committee of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority last week chose the least-expensive option among five possibilities -- continuing to operate it under authority ownership.

That was the best available choice, at least for short term, and it came as a relief to a group of pilots who have been lobbying to keep the small airstrip in Forks Township going, rather than see it shut it down or sold for commercial development.

So how is that paying Braden's $250,000 annual operating deficit qualifies as welcome news, considering the authority is under the gun to satisfy a $16 million court judgment?

It's only because the other options carry bigger losses, and some would have resulted in the end of a long history of flying at Braden. Those options included selling the airport to the pilots' group, selling it to developer J.G. Petrucci, and shutting it down and mothballing it for future use.

Although Petrucci offered $3 million, it was offset by the need to repay a bond and reimburse state grants with the loss of aviation use. A purchase offer of $1.75 million by the pilots group wouldn't cover losses either. Even the option of closing the airport was more expensive than keeping it going because of monetary penalties.

"We need to bite the bullet and continue to lose the money until we figure this out," said authority board Vice Chairman Robert Buesing.

 Another option, leasing the airport to the pilots group, was considered, but it didn't address $500,000 in needed capital improvements, including a 345-foot extension of the runway. The pilots were unable to secure financing for that, and the possibility of financial aid from Northampton County appears to have dried up with a budget crisis and an ongoing struggle with employees over increased healthcare costs. In a letter, county Executive John Brown advised the authority to keep looking for a way to keep Braden operating, declining to offer  any county help.

 This isn't the final word. The full authority still has to act on the committee's recommendation. Executive Director Charles Everett said he'll continue to entertain proposals for a sale or lease.

 Although the authority is on the spot to raise $16 million, it's important to remember the debt was incurred by litigation over the authority's ill-fated decision in the 1990s to take land from a developer, for an airport expansion that was never built. The authority's purchase of Braden Airpark was justified by what was then seen as a need to divert general aviation away from growing commercial traffic at Lehigh Valley International Airport.

Cutting losses is now a recurring pattern, but there's no need to liquidate Braden for the mistakes of the past.

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