Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (KECP) numbers down, although planes remain nearly full

WEST BAY — June passenger traffic at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport failed to outpace last year, but officials say high load factors for the airport’s two commercial airlines are a positive sign.

Airport Director Parker McClellan provided the report to the Airport Authority at a board meeting Wednesday, which outlined about a 4 percent decrease in passengers year-over-year, with June flights on Southwest Airlines 88 percent full and Delta Airlines flights 79 percent full.

“The load factors are showing that the airlines that are coming in here are full,” McClellan said, chalking high load factors up to seasonal schedule adjustments the airlines have made over the last few years. “Those are great numbers.”

However, when compared with load factors from the same month last year, the numbers haven’t shown much improvement. Load factors for Delta Airlines actually decreased 12 percent from last year, while load factors for Southwest Airlines remained about the same.

Overall, 204,521 passengers traveled through ECP in June, compared with 211,112 in June of 2013.

Despite lagging passenger numbers, the airport managed to gain ground on its percentage of the market share. Between April and June the airport held 21 percent of the market share, up from the 19 percent reported last quarter.

Pensacola International Airport maintained its grip on the market with a 40 percent share between April and June, followed by Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Okaloosa County with 20 percent, and Tallahassee Regional Airport with 19 percent.

 New chairman

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the board elected board member Till Bruett as the new chairman and Russ Mathis as vice chairman. Bruett will take over the position from former Chairman John Pilcher, who held the title for the last two years.

Bruett has served on the board for five years and said his biggest goal as chairman will be to bring new airline service to ECP.

“I think that has to be our main emphasis,” Bruett said. “Increase the service and improve the service.”

Additionally, the airport authority welcomed new member Cindy Meadows, who was appointed by the Walton County Commission. Meadows will replace former Walton County representative Dawn Moliterno on the board.

In other business, the board:

- Approved a $372,000 task order contracted from the airport’s engineering firm, ZHA, Inc. for environmental mitigation services for 9,600 acres south of the airport between September 2014 and August 2015. The motion marks the second year of a three-year contract with environmental consulting firm ERC, but Pilcher requested that the contract be rebid every year in the future to ensure a competitive price. Mitigation efforts in the coming year will include prescribed burns, timber harvest, hydrologic restoration and restoring native vegetation.

 - Approved a 3.1 percent raise for Airport Director Parker McClellan following a performance evaluation conducted by Bruett. The raise brings McClellan’s annual salary to $139,196.

- Approved a $12,130 change order requested by Phoenix Construction for a project to construct a new pushback apron and improve security surrounding the air traffic control tower. The original contract sum is $1.2 million. 


Yeager Airport (KCRW) preparing defense in Freedom Industries lawsuit

Yeager Airport’s newly appointed lawyer will try get a chemical-leak related lawsuit dismissed on legal grounds, arguing that, as a government-run agency, the airport cannot be sued.

Yeager’s insurance company recently appointed Clark Hill, a Pittsburgh-based law firm to represent the airport in the lawsuit which alleges that a poorly managed construction project caused stormwater runoff that disturbed the Freedom Industries tank farm below the airport.

At Wednesday’s airport board meeting, Trig Salsbery, an attorney and a board member, said the law firm was preparing a number of factual defenses for the lawsuit, but would begin with a more technical defense.

Salsbery said the airport would argue sovereign immunity, a general legal principle that says you cannot sue the state unless it consents to the suit. Salsbery declined further comment on that line of defense and an attorney with Clark Hill, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

American International Group, the airport’s insurance company, is covering the majority of the airport’s legal costs.

Salsbery said a group representing the airport had recently visited the Freedom Industries site and that they were preparing a more tangible defense based in part on the visit.

The lawsuit against the airport alleges that the chemical tank -- which leaked a coal-cleaning chemical into the Elk River, contaminating the region’s drinking water -- was corroded from below due to increased stormwater runoff from the airport’s runway extension project.

The airport is directly uphill from the tank farm and the Elk River.

Salsbery said the lawsuit’s argument was not supported by the facts.

“You’ve got surface water sliding down the mountain that could reach that facility, but that didn’t come from any disturbance we did during the runway extension,” Salsbery said. “That’s just surface water that’s been coming down that mountain for years and years.”

Salsbery also said there are plenty of obstacles, including several ditches, at the bottom of the hill to stop water runoff.

A preliminary investigation by the federal Chemical Safety Board found that holes in the chemical tanks “likely initiated from the interior” and that holes in the roof of the tanks likely let water inside, providing a source for corrosion.

The airport has until Aug. 20 to respond to the lawsuit.

Also at the airport board meeting, officials said they were getting closer to deals that could bring direct flights between Charleston and Orlando and between Charleston and the New York City area.

“We’ve got them up to the edge of the cliff, we’ve just got to push them off,” Brian Belcher, Yeager’s marketing director, said about negotiations with airlines for the Orlando route.

In June, airline officials attended JumpStart, a networking event for airports and airlines.

At the conference in Edmonton, Belcher said that they spoke with seven different airlines about the Orlando route, and two of them expressed serious interest.

He declined to name the two airlines, but said that United continues to express interest in a route between Charleston and Newark, New Jersey, but has so far refused to commit.
Belcher pointed out that the airport had to woo Continental for seven years and AirTran for 10 years before the airlines signed on to fly to Charleston.

Anthony Gilmer, the airport’s marketing coordinator, said they’re getting closer to the two new routes, but there’s no timetable because the airlines are selective and opportunistic.

“Close could mean six months and close could mean two years,” Gilmer said. “We know that the people want New York and Orlando, we want it too. The airlines know what we want.”

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