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CURRENT STORIES


Flying high

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- Area airport officials say a fresh federal effort to turn rural airports into economic engines is beginning to work.

"This is another way for us to be competitive," said Joe Mattaliano, secretary for the Philippi/Barbour County Regional Airport.

That small airport is among several in the region to tap into millions of dollars of funding that was previously targeted primarily to airports that offer commercial passenger service. There are only seven commercial airports in the state. Two of them -- Harrison-Marion Regional Airport in Bridgeport and Morgantown Municipal Airport -- are in the North Central region.

"We don't want to compete with (Harrison-Marion)," Mattaliano said of using $2.1 million in recent Airport Improvement Project (AIP) grants to upgrade conditions for small-aircraft traffic and prepare for some on-site industry.

"There's a segment of the population we can serve."

Mattaliano said the airport authority is particularly interested in making the airport a more appealing place for the owners of private aircraft and small corporate planes to use. He sees the airport's proximity to the larger Harrison-Marion as a plus, suggesting that, as Harrison-Marion grows, some of its overflow may head to Barbour County.

The Barbour airport also is developing a single industrial building to house some in-county industry that would like airport access.

"It's an economic tool," he said, pointing out that an airport adds a lot to a county that has no four-lane roads.

Clear flight path

Mark Ferrell, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said that is exactly what the expanded federal funding is intended to do. He said Rockefeller had rural airports such as those that dot this state in mind when he authored the most recent AIP renewal, called the Airport Investment and Revitalization Act, or AIR 21.

Nationally, AIR 21 will filter between $3.4 billion and $3.7 billion of U.S. Department of Transportation funding to commercial- and general-service airports during each of the next four fiscal years.

"These are an essential economic development tool," Ferrell said. "These grants are just to help them get there."

Rockefeller particularly wants more rural airports to be able to land small corporate aircraft that business entrepreneurs often use to visit remote work sites, Ferrell said.

He said it is important to note that the money going to the smallest of airports is not for wild projects. It's for basic operating needs such as runway extensions, lights, snow removal equipment and taxiways for greater safety.

Bill Wellings, manager of the Upshur County Regional Airport, said money for such projects is surely appreciated.

That airport is working through $3.2 million in AIR 21 money. Part of it will cover the earth work for a 700-foot runway extension. Part will be used to shave down a hill in order to create a 16-acre area the authority plans to use for hangars and an airport building that will house a small restaurant among other travel amenities.

Enlarging the runway to 4,200 feet will allow the airport to land larger aircraft, which Wellings said is necessary to make their ultimate economic development plan work.

"We are the closest airport to Stonewall Resort (in Lewis County)," Wellings said. "We intend to develop the airport as a service center in the same way the Greenbrier Valley Airport serves The Greenbrier."

Upshur County Regional Airport already has a formal financial relationship with the city of Weston, the nearest city to the resort.

Wellings said preparing a parcel of land for hangars and an airport services building is another important part of the plan.

First, to handle resort traffic, authority members feel it is important to offer food and basic services on site. Secondly, to continue to serve corporate aircraft and private aircraft owners, the airport must have hangars.

He said that is especially true for corporate aircraft, of which the airport has six stationed on site. There is only one hangar, however, which is already in use.

"Because of not having hangars available yet, we are having problems," Wellings said. "If a corporation or an individual invests $800,000 ... in a turbo-prop, they certainly don't want it standing out in the elements."

Competing interests?

So far, the new money flowing to smaller airports has not meant less money for the area's commercial-service facilities, according to Jim Griffith, manager of Harrison-Marion Regional Airport.

He said AIR 21 has been good to that airport, as well, bringing in about $1 million per year. Recently, that funding has been used to purchase snow-removal equipment and remodel the terminal building to bring it into compliance with federal disability and security regulations.

Harrison-Marion also gets the occasional whopper grant, such as about $30 million that allowed it to extend its runway to 7,000 feet in recent years. It can now handle large aircraft such as 747s.

"It's just basically improving the aviation infrastructure in the state," Griffith said of AIR 21 making it easier for all West Virginia businesses to move people, goods and services.

He is concerned, however, that airports such as Harrison-Marion not get pushed out of the general-aviation business by the funding shift. He said general aviation (private and corporate fliers) is, "where all airports come from."

And, even though Harrison-Marion also has a growing aerospace industrial park, education components, a military presence and commercial passenger service, he said it cannot back away from serving smaller customers. If he could get the funding, he would like to add 25-30 hangars to serve those smaller needs.

"The mix has got to be there," Griffith said. "Each component, in itself, will not stand alone. Together, they do make up an aviation community."

Griffith also noted the vagaries of offering commercial passenger service. Harrison-Marion has been struggling to maintain sufficient passenger count and viable flight schedules since 9/11 terrorism injured the aviation industry.

Wellings said that's why smaller entities such as Upshur County Regional Airport aren't even thinking of developing in that way.

"It would be ridiculous for us to say ... we want to be a commercial-service airport," Wellings said.

But he sees a future in which today's airport upgrades may serve another breed of commercial flight. He believes fractional ownership and air-taxi service could make Upshur County Regional Airport and others have a brave new economic role.

Fractional ownership refers to the practice of multiple companies or individuals owning time-shares of a business aircraft, even a small jet. Air-taxi service would involve smaller commercial carriers offering point-to-point service for single customers, a type of service that would not involve large hub airports unless a client needed it to.

Wellings believes both concepts will be the natural result of large carriers cutting back on rural service as they cope with continued financial problems.

"We really appreciate what our congressmen have done," Wellings said of the push behind funding that may leave small airports poised to tap that market.

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or, by e-mail, at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.