Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Since runway expansion, Hagerstown Regional Airport revenues have taken off



Back in 2003 and 2004, the idea of extending one of the runways at Hagerstown Regional Airport met with some resistance.

The late Washington County Commissioner John Munson mused on the day the construction contract was awarded that he didn't think the project was worth the cost, and it wouldn't "bring in the businesses that we've been told."

Munson said he thought about 2 percent of county residents supported the extension, and he was sorry the project was approved, according to Herald-Mail reports at the time.

"I think 98 percent of the people in Washington County are sorry, too," he said.

The county's initial tab for the more than $60 million investment — $47 million of which came from the Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Trust Fund — was to be 5 percent, or a little more than $3 million.

But because of the FAA's reimbursement policies, the county was asked to finance the initial costs, which raised its early contribution a bit. The rest came from the state.

Back then, the airport brought in a reported $48 million per year to the local economy.

By the time ground was broken in April 2004, the Maryland Aviation Administration reported the airport directly or indirectly generated 831 jobs and posted an average of 152 flight operations, or takeoffs and landings, per day.

An average of 44 passengers per day took commercial fights to Pittsburgh International Airport through U.S. Airways, and many predicted the shuttle service would soon end.

Two months before the extended runway opened in late 2007, that is exactly what happened.

The shuttle service ended, and flight operations were at about 120 per day, according to Airport Director Phil Ridenour.

But in the 10 years since the runway project was finished, much has changed.

The number of jobs generated by the airport had almost doubled to nearly 1,500, and their personal annual income totaled almost $80 million, according to the latest report from the Maryland Aviation Administration.

The airport was generating $109 million in business revenue and $8.4 million in state and local taxes. Flight operations are back up to an average of 150 per day, and commercial passenger service has returned, the report said.

'Good investment'

Ridenour said during a recent interview that he anticipates MAA's next report will look even better, "based on conversations that we've had with businesses around the airfield."

At least 16 aviation-related businesses are currently operating on the airfield, he said.

"We have a big variety of businesses on the airport," he said. "We have Department of Defense contractors, we have other contractors that provide services, we have aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul services; smaller aircraft-painting facilities."

"The expansion of the runway is a good investment in the county," said David Rider, who with his son, Ben, is the owner-operator of Rider Jet Center on the airport's north side.

He has been involved with just about all of those airport businesses, and some are housed at the jet center.

"The general public perceives aviation and aircraft as for the rich and famous," David Rider said. "That is far from the truth."

All the businesses in the area use the airport and not just for passenger travel, he said.

"There's a lot of freight that goes through here," he said. "A lot of it goes to Volvo."

Rider said that the airport also provides a base or transfer point for more benevolent and humanitarian purposes.

For example, Life Net 81, a critical-care transport service, is based at the airport, he said.

And at least monthly, "we have planes come in that are transporting rescue animals from one location to another; these are general aviation pilots that volunteer their time. This is a transfer point where they stop," Rider said.

Runway 'drawing card'

But nobody out there discounts the airport's revenue-generating potential, and the longer runway has helped attract business, Ridenour said.

Defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corp. occupied two buildings at the airport when the runway was going into place, he said.

"They now have seven buildings on the airport," he said. "They have drastically increased their workforce, they've drastically increased their workload at the airport."

Ridenour said he believes the runway extension helped with some of the company's contracts.

Sierra Nevada's Hagerstown operation is part of the company's Integrated Mission Systems Division that modifies aircraft with reconnaissance and surveillance equipment.

"Because of the 7,000-foot runway, we're able to accommodate just about any aircraft except for the larger, wide-bodied jets and things like that," Ridenour said. "We can accommodate a whole host of aircraft at the airport now."

Sierra Nevada uses the long runway in its marketing materials, Ridenour said.

"They use that as an advertising tool to say: 'We're on an airport that has a 7,000-foot runway, it's 150-foot wide, it's a grooved surface, it has full instrumentation at both ends of the runway, so all of the capabilities are here.' I'm sure that's a good tool for them to use in their contracts."

The runway, in fact, is the second longest in Maryland, after Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Commercial carriers

The airport now has two commercial carriers, with flights to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, as well as Orlando/Sanford, Fla., and — returning in February — flights to Clearwater/St. Petersburg.

As of Nov. 15, Allegiant was averaging 141 passengers per flight to Florida for an average load factor of 84 percent, according to airport statistics.

And as of Oct. 31, 6,565 passengers had used Southern Airways Express to Pittsburgh and Dulles International Airport in 2016 for an average of 656 per month.

The Dulles flight was switched to BWI last month.

Allegiant, which began flights from Hagerstown in 2012, flies twice a week to Orlando/Sanford and has in the past scheduled flights to Clearwater/St. Petersburg from February to August.

"If we wouldn't have had the 7,000-foot runway there's a very, very good chance that they wouldn't have come here because the aircraft that they were flying at the time that they started was an MD-80, and it required a pretty long runway," Ridenour said.

"So more than likely they would have had to turn us down, just because of the length of the runway. I'm not saying they would have, but there's a good possibility they could have," he said.

Runway length is not so much of an issue for Allegiant now because some of the airline's newer planes can land on shorter runways.

But Ridenour said runway length "was one of the drawing cards" that brought Allegiant to town.

The airline makes two flights per day to each destination on weekdays, and one per day to each on weekends.

Now, airport officials are considering where it can grow next.

Ridenour said the airport layout plan is continually updated, looking toward areas that can be acquired in the future.

"We're getting to the point where we have a limited amount of land for development, and we need to increase our acreage so that we have additional possibilities for future development," he said.

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