Sunday, November 27, 2016

Editorial: Trial balloon for Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport

Here's a modest proposal about a public commission that holds some $108 million of assets on behalf of the people of the Peninsula — and discusses everything it hopes to do with those assets behind closed doors.

If you want to act like a private business, well, then, be a private business.

Perhaps a private business, freed from the constraints of being accountable to the public and conducting its deliberations in the open, could run Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport better than the public officials and former officials who comprise the Peninsula Airport Commission Board. There's nothing like demands from stockholders for dividends or stock performance to keep you on your toes, after all.

The current board oversees an operation that lost $6.7 million on revenue of $7.8 million in fiscal year 2016. Grants from the state and feds cover the red ink, as they have for years.

The board deliberates over the reasons for all those losses behind closed doors. The plans the board has for the airport and the efforts it makes to bring airlines or, indeed, any business to the environs of our palatial, and generally empty, terminal are set pretty much in secret.

We find out when the commission wants to splash something like the taxpayer-subsidized fiasco of People Express, the would-be airline with no track record that leased an insufficient number of planes from a company with a negative net worth of $30 million. And stopped service within three months, stiffing the airport for tens of thousands of dollars.

But the commission did its due diligence, we were told.

In secret.

Taxpayers and flight-fee payers across the nation are dropping a cool $14 million on a new security checkpoint at the airport to be a central point for people going to either one of the two terminals.

We're sure it's a good deal for an airport served by only two airlines that use a few gates at only one of those two terminals.

There wasn't a lot of talk about that idea for using public money in public, though. Since the cost falls on plenty of people who don't live here, many of whom don't use Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, perhaps they won't notice. Or care.

Perhaps we'd better not let on.

Will we ever get our long-coveted airline service to New York? Who knows?

The only thing we do know is that we haven't got it yet.

Is it just because of those short-sighted airlines? Could it possibly be that the commission doesn't do a good job? How often are airport staff talking to airlines? To which airlines? What's the pitch to airlines? How are they responding? Do we need to rethink approaches, try something new?

Don't know.

Neither do you.

So, here's our idea.

Let's just sell the airport.

We ought to be able to get ourselves a few million dollars that way. That could be money to modernize or replace a few of our aging school buildings. Maybe a park? Perhaps some of the infrastructure projects we need to complete to encourage businesses to locate or expand here.

If we sell, we won't know much about the airport and what it's up to. But then, what do we know now?

And of course we wouldn't have much say in what the airport's board decides. But then, with a secretive public body like the airport commission — and all too many others like it across the state — what say do we really have, when you get down to it?

If we sold it, we could simply sit back and see if one private entity — an airport — manages to convince another — an airline — to come here.

As we board our flights, maybe even that nonstop to New York, we could pause for a moment to acknowledge the taxes that a private airport would pay us.

We could take this a lot further, too. If you read our Freedom of Information Act, it looks as if practically everyone in state and local government wants to operate more like a business.

There are well over 100 excuses for thousands of state, city, county, town, school and college officials to say you don't need to know what they're up to.

If we have, say, a governor, who feels it's just not good business sense to let the public see the memos he and his staff pass to one another about the policies they want to pursue — or the list recording the names of the 206,000 felons he decided deserved a restoration of rights — maybe he belongs in the private sector.

If we have public officials who don't think we, as the people who pay their salaries, should know how well they do their jobs, well, maybe they belong in the private sector, too.

For now, let's say this to the Peninsula Airport Commission and any other public bodies operates in secret, like a private business:


You're for sale.

We'll take the money, and keep the funds we currently shower on you, thank you.

You take your chances in the private world. Good luck.


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