County airport remains a jewel with potential

Tony Rudy, the new Manager for Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport.

Recent leadership changes in the county government and Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport have done nothing to stall ambitious plans to further polish the 1,000-plus-acre complex into an economic jewel.

Three years ago, County Executive Bob Culver and his deputy, Wayne Strausburg, hired airport guru Dawn Veatch as part of an effort to better-tap the airport’s potential as an economic driver. While always an important part of the county’s business menu, changes in the passenger airline industry and poultry industry consolidations served to stymie growth that had been predicted when an impressive new terminal was opened in 1991.

During the years that surrounded the 2008 Great Recession, the county had no cash to even keep airport infrastructure up to date.

But coming out of the economic doldrums, Culver and Strausburg — joined by citizen Airport Commission members — were determined to place the airport back on the county government’s front-burner.

Veatch set out to address the long list of delayed repairs and updates, while also drafting a big-picture strategic plan for the airport which first opened in 1943.

Officials won state help and city of Salisbury cooperation to bring municipal water to the airport, for use in fire suppression in the hangars and development of the adjoining Business Park.

Piedmont Airlines

Officials negotiated a new and crucial multi-year lease with Piedmont Airlines, which operates a maintenance hub in Salisbury as well as an operation control center. The airline — a descendent of the late-great Richard Henson’s company — employs more than 250 people in Salisbury alone and 10,000 people nationwide.

Through its partnership with American Airlines, Piedmont’s fleet consists of more than 50 Embraer ERJ-145 twin-engine regional jets.

Those aircraft to over 50 destinations, from regional markets throughout the East Coast and into American Airlines’ hubs and focus cities.

Just last year, the airport built a convenient and comfortable business lounge and was even able to reopen its snack bar area, thanks to an agreement with Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli out of Ocean City. With travel hampered by the pandemic, however, the deli has closed.

The Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport is serviced by jets operated by Piedmont Airlines.

The county moved forward with plans to develop a commercial drone testing facility, making it the first airport in the country to develop such an operation. Wicomico was approached by officials at the Wallops Flight Facility where commercial drone testing and airspace are overwhelmed by the military.

Because Salisbury offers a lot of unrestricted airspace, that will allow more freedom for commercial operations.

The county will ultimately build a hangar for unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called UAVs or drones, that have wingspans up to 70 feet. Several manufacturers are reportedly interested in operating there.

The hangar with a taxiway would anchor a planned industrial park at the airport. A new master plan for the airport was recently approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, and includes two 30,000-square-foot buildings.

The annual economic impact of the expansion is expected to be huge — the operation is estimated to have a $55 million impact on the region, bringing high-paying jobs and tax revenues to the county.

Construction on Salisbury’s drone facility is expected to start soon and possibly open next spring.

It will be among several planned improvements at the airport, including a runway extension to better accommodate jets.

Rudy succeeds Veatch

Out-of-town family demands prompted Veatch’s unplanned retirement last spring and her deputy, Tony Rudy, was quickly named to replace her.

A central New York State native, Rudy holds an Aviation Management/Flight Operations degree, has worked at airports in New York and California.

After college in Vermont, he worked at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., a busy medium-hub airport, before returning east to work as Assistant Manager of Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. Then he served as Director of Airport Operations at the Elmira Corning Regional Airport, where he oversaw a $61 million terminal renovation project and a $13 million taxiway reconfiguration project.

He arrived in Salisbury last year, having built 28 total years in the airport industry.

FEMA project

Among possible projects is one that has been discussed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The idea is to build a disaster distribution center at the airport that could store medical supplies, diapers, water, nonperishable foods and other essential items. Because the Eastern Shore is accessible only by bridges that are vulnerable in hurricanes or terrorist attacks, Salisbury could be a staging area for serving the entire Mid-Atlantic with disaster relief.

CARES Act money

Because the federal government recognizes the airport’s vital contributions to the region, the county received $18.1 million in federal economic stimulus funds as part of congressional emergency legislation to help airports weather Covid-19.

The grant is from the CARES Act which provided $10 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration to allow critical safety and capacity projects to continue during the pandemic.

The funding is designed to protect general aviation airports and maintain small and rural communities’ access to aviation services, according to the Aviation Pros website.

Piedmont seeks expansion

As the airport’s most-important tenant, Piedmont Airlines has long sought more county attention — and dollars for the airport.

Piedmont CEO Capt. Lyle Hogg has repeatedly stated 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 top local business leaders in an address last year. “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.”

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.

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