Landing fees considered to raise Wicomico airport revenues

County officials in charge of the Salisbury-Wicomico-Ocean City Regional Airport are examining whether landing fees assessed to Piedmont Airlines would be a viable way to raise money for airport improvements, and fire and safety needs.

In a meeting last week with the Wicomico County Council, Airport General Manager Dawn Veatch said contract negotiations will soon begin in earnest with Salisbury-based Piedmont, which flies regional passenger aircraft for American Airlines.

Piedmont will begin flying jets from the airport on Tuesday, Aug. 22, marking a new era for the county airport.

Veatch said landing fees are only one of several options being considered to increase revenues. Piedmont has asked the county to extend its main runway by 600 feet, so the jets can take off in hot weather, when a longer exit path is needed.

The Federal Aviation Administration could ultimately be a runway funding source, in addition to other grants. County officials have even mulled whether to commit to the expansion and forward-fund it, with the expectation that federal monies and other revenues would pay the funding back.

Veatch, who assumed her new post in February, said she had met with Piedmont President and CEO Lyle Hogg to discuss a new lease. She said Piedmont signed a 20-month agreement when American Airlines merged with USAir, but that she wants the airline to make a commitment of at least five years.

“Under the current lease, I don’t think it’s worth doing the runway extension. We’ve asked them to take a look at signing a new lease that would also include — not only going five years forward instead of 20 months — but it would also include landing fees. That would now cover airport rescue, fire retention and recovery.”

She said that Hogg serves as the spokesman for the American Airlines Operating Agreement, which covers use of terminal airport and facilities to conduct the business of the airline.

While Veatch didn’t state any details on how such fees would be priced, she said the fees might cover 75 percent to 100 percent of the fire and safety costs.

Dave Ryan, Executive Director of the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Corp., has historically been the county’s point man when dealing with big contracts at the airport. Ryan will continue that role as negotiations ramp up.

Though Veatch reports to the County Executive’s Office, she is advised by a citizen-driven Airport Commission. The council could not be involved in negotiations, but does have approving any lease that bonds the county for more than a year under its area of authority.

Council members appeared concerned that they’ve been left out of the loop on many of the details and changes under way at the airport. Councilman John Hall is the council’s airport liaison and also serves as the Airport Commission chairman. Hall is widely credited with finding Veatch — who has a long career in airport and flight service — and getting her to accept the manager’s job in Salisbury.

Council President John Cannon told Veatch to remember to keep the council informed.

“If the new fees are going to change the degree of funding of the airport, then somehow the council is going to have to come into play with that,” Cannon said.

“And I certainly wouldn’t want to get ahead of ourselves and create a new lease with American Airlines that hasn’t been vetted 100 percent with the council before we take it there and get it signed.”

Veatch stressed that the process was in its early stages.

“We’ve asked them to take a look to see if it’s feasible,” she said of Piedmont, “because of the landing fees to cover it. That’s something they need to look at first.”

Hall told Cannon that any lease would be brought before the council at the proper time.

Reversing status quo

Veatch has been winning a lot of attention and praise for her quick and decisive action in just six months at the airport’s control stick.

She aggressively confronted the FAA over its failure to maintain crucial radar systems which caused some American flights to be canceled last spring during a week of rainy and foggy weather.

She has rebranded the airport — another concern raised by the council — and launched a new website. In early summer, she hosted a huge Open House at the airport called “Wings & Wheels” that attracted more than 1,000 people. She has tackled problems with the airport’s restaurant space, is working on ways to get local restaurants to offer food at the airport and has embarked on a project to modernize the restrooms.

She said she is close to solving one of the longtime complaints voiced by passengers: The lack of an ATM machine at the facility.

Last month, she held a public reach-out session with airport neighbors concerned about the noise the new jets will bring. This summer, two aircraft taxiways will be repaved and resurfaced.    

“The past 12 years have pretty much been status quo,” she told the council. “There hasn’t been a lot of outreach for new business, nor has the economy really been in the mode of starting new business. The opportunities are there now and we want to be able to capture the opportunities as we move forward.”

Veatch said she has been talking to a flight school in Trenton, N.J., about operating 10 planes and 16 students out of Salisbury. The county’s airport, she said, is one of only four in the country certified by the FAA to allow drones to operate — and drones are considered a wave of the future for the aeronautical world.

Concerning the 600-foot extension, she said a runway feasibility study under way and is being handled by Delta Engineering. “That will take 18 months and then go to FAA, then an environmental assessment needs to be done.”

“There hasn’t been a complete environmental assessment or master plan update since 1993,” she said; council members seemed surprised by that news.

Rebranding efforts

Some members seemed concerned that the airport’s official name was changed without their consultation. Veatch explained that Sby Airport was chosen for simplicity. The airport’s website is the easily memorable “flysby.com.” As part of the logo, Wicomico, Salisbury and Ocean City remain visible.

Although Veatch didn’t say so, the airport’s clunky and too-long name has been an issue for years.

She did point to an example, however: Baltimore-Washington International — Thurgood Marshall Airport is the correct name for the state’s largest airport, but most everyone simply refers to it by its flight code: BWI. Salisbury’s flight code is SBY.

She said she would spend more money this year to market the airport and will also engage in a “leakage study” that examines where passengers fly to from Salisbury and why some passengers bypass Sby Regional and drive to Baltimore, Washington National of Dulles.

Fire services

Veatch explained that county personnel would have to soon assume fire protection duties at the Airport Road facility. Under a previous agreement, Piedmont supplied the manpower and the county supplied the equipment.

Piedmont wants to end that arrangement and the county is agreeable because of liability issues.

Airport fire protection has been an element in the county’s overall discussions about fire services.

She said it will not be the first time the county staffed a fire team at the airport — she said Piedmont had only been offering personnel for the last 10 to 12 years.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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