Piedmont CEO advocates airport investment

If county leaders want to grow the economy, attract new businesses and grow jobs, they should step up public investment in Salisbury Regional Airport, according to Piedmont Airlines’ new CEO.

Lyle Hogg told a meeting of Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Corp. members that the airport’s potential is at an all-time high and now is the time to act.

“I’m not saying the airport is not getting support,” Hogg told the assembly of top local business leaders. “What I’m saying is that there’s so much potential. I think we’re doing what we’ve always done here. We’re at a place where it could go either direction.”

Hogg added: “To grow the airport and turn it into an economic generator for this area, improvements need to be made.”

Wicomico County owns the 73-year-old, recently rebranded airport and has a long list of hoped-for improvements. The state has recently accelerated a grant that would extend public water from the Wor-Wic Community College water tower, south to the airport along Walston Switch Road, for use in fire suppression if there were an emergency in one of the hangars.

The county has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to fund a 600-foot runway extension, which Piedmont says it needs to safely fly its new jet fleet in hot weather.

The longest runway now measures 640 feet.

County officials, along with the airport’s new manager, Dawn Veatch, have stepped on FAA officials to repair and replace radar equipment that has prompted flights to be canceled when clouds are too close to ground level and compromise visibility.

While all three needs are crucial, the runway extension is regarded as the most urgent. Federal officials would cover about 90 percent of the cost, but that money won’t come for at least three years.

In the meantime, county officials will have to forward fund the project and wait for the payback.

“We’d like to see these things all done tomorrow, but they take a long time,” said County Councilman John Hall, a longtime Airport Commission member who serves as the council’s liaison to the airport.

“The FAA said they won’t pay us the $6 million until the end of the project, which is three years. In the meantime, we have to have the project built. So we’ll have to forward-fund it.”

‘We need money’

Hall has been a consistent proponent of airport improvements. He even opposed a recent property tax rate cut, saying the $600,000 the county would lose should have been applied to the airport.

“We need money, which is something you hear throughout the county, to repair the infrastructure — and it’s going to take a lot of money to do that,” Hall said. “Is it worthwhile? Yes, because the people who will help grow our community want to be able to fly in here. They don’t want to drive in here. We need to be impressive. Right now, we aren’t that impressive (but) but we will be, by the time we’re done.”

A 2011 runway expansion created the earth-grading and ensured room for a runway extension. Still, the paving expense — combined with a required environmental study — places the cost at about $1 million per 100 feet.

Officials have earmarked $350,000 for design work and land costs related to the water lines project, which will ultimately cost about $2.6 million.

Hogg maintains that the airport needs more than the to-do list that would benefit Piedmont. He’s encouraging the county to go even further, and plan and budget for improvements that will have a true long-term benefit.

“We (as a community) could say the heck with commercial aviation and let this airport shrink and shrink,” Hogg said, “or we can take the bull by the horns and invest some money and encourage companies to come here. I don’t know if we could support another airline here, but we could certainly support cargo carriers and corporate flight departments.”

‘Tremendous potential’

County business and government officials rarely get to hear a prominent business leader, such as Piedmont’s president and CEO, review the airport’s history and promote improvement.

“The airport has tremendous potential, but — in my opinion — has had a lack of investment in it over the years. We are at a tipping point,” Hogg said. “We just need a couple of companies (to commit to here) — and then we’re off the the races.”

In addition to the runway extension and water service, Hogg would like to see a resolution to the fire services debate that is about to become a county/city problem.

Piedmont has always used its employees to staff the airport’s foam truck and respond to potential fire or crash emergencies. The airline’s new lease with Wicomico transfers those responsibilities to the county.

County Executive Bob Culver is said to be working with Salisbury’s rebel Station 13 volunteers about possibly staffing the airport.

While not wading into that thorny political issue, Hogg said such an arrangement is not unusual.

“There’s a concept at other airports where they use the same firemen, if you will, to go out the back door when there’s an aircraft accident and out the front door when there’s a fire in the community,” Hogg said.

“They need to leave somebody on staff at the airport to support the airport at all times,” he said, “but it could be a joint-use airport/community fire station. That’s what a lot of communities do.”

Hogg said the 600-foot extension helps his company, but the county should think even bigger.

“The airport, in order to attract a cargo carrier, for example, and therefore carry more weight in and out of the airport, a 6,500-foot runway is probably not going to be attractive to a cargo carrier — it needs to be longer.

“Corporate jets — to attract corporate flight departments to build their company or grow their company here in Salisbury, they want to be able to fly their jets to the West Coast, and off a 6,500-foot runway, they can’t (because fuel-weight calculations). So these are impediments to bringing more business into the area.”

Beginning next month, Piedmont through it affiliation with American Airlines, will begin transitioning the venerable Dash 8 turboprop fleet into a jet fleet led by the Embraer-145. Hogg said his company is at the halfway point in replacing all of the Dash-8s with the Embraers.

The 50-seat jets will also be maintained in Salisbury.

“Even though we only have six flights a day out of Salisbury, Salisbury is very important to us from a maintenance standpoint,” Hogg said. “Most of our employees who we have here work in our maintenance facility — two hangars — one hangar can accommodate three or four aircraft per night, which is when most of the maintenance work is done.”

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