Delegation seeks airport help

WILLIAMSTOWN – Local officials are asking federal representatives to help ensure the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport does not lose its control tower or Essential Air Service designation.

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell and a delegation including representatives of the Wood County Development Authority last week traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.; and other national leaders.

Newell said among the topics discussed was the airport’s tower and essential air service, or EAS.

“The airport is key to tourism,” Newell said. “And when we have new businesses looking to locate here, the first thing they ask is do we have an airport. It’s extremely essential to Parkersburg and to the region to have air service here.”

Airport manager Terry Moore said considering all of the issues the airport has been up against in recent years, he appreciates the vote of confidence from Newell and the Development Authority

“I’m very grateful that the mayor and the delegation brought this up in D.C.,” he said Thursday. “While our national representatives know the situation we are facing, they have a lot on their plates, and it’s good to give them a reminder from time to time.”

On March 22, after a month of discussions, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would close 149 federally contracted towers across the country at smaller airports with the local tower as one of those. The proposed closures were due to a required part of a $637 million cut from the office’s budget under federal sequestration.

In May, the FAA announced those towers in jeopardy would be funded through September. These towers are contracted through three companies and paid for by the FAA and were kept open this summer following the rearranging of existing Airport Improvement Project funds following Congress’ passage of funding bills to clear up air traffic controller furlough issues.

Following a 16-day government shutdown in October, legislators voted on a temporary measure to fund the federal government until Jan. 15.

But Moore said he sees little hope in having the issue resolved before the deadline.

“We’re still dancing on the head of a pin here,” he said. “Without a resolution, you kind of live day-to-day, waiting for the other shoe to fall. Jan. 15 isn’t that far off.”

Newell said Parkersburg still has $15,000 set aside by city council to help with funding operations a the airport if there is a gap in the federal funding, but those funds would only go so far. Moore has said without a clear direction from the feds, there is little point in operating the tower with a short burst of funding from local services.

Moore said the most likely scenario is another temporary funding agreement at the federal level which would keep funding for all agencies at current levels. And that, he said, just again delays the inevitable.

“If history is any indicator, they are probably not going to have anything done in the next few weeks,” he said.

Another potential problem also looms for the airport, though a bit further down the line. Last year the airport received only one bid for EAS for service to Cleveland from Silver Airways, which provides four flights a day from the local airport to Hopkins International Airport.

Moore said the EAS will come up for bid again in a year, and he fears changes at the federal level may make the program unattractive to carriers.

At the federal level “they are looking at changing the radius of the areas covered by EAS,” he said. “If that happens, we are still okay, but several airports in our system would be cut out if that legislation were to be passed.”

With fewer airport systems available, the cost of operating out of the local airport would increase, harming its ability to attract a carrier.

“While we would still be eligible for EAS, it would be economically unviable to operate here,” Moore said. The proposed changes “are targeting places that aren’t specific to us, but we might get splashed by the tar that falls from this.”

Moore said these issues come even as the local airport has seen steady growth in recent years, moving from about 1,000 passengers a year to about 8,500 passengers for 2013.

“We’ve grown quite a bit over the past few years,” he said. “It is a slow process, but we are growing.”