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Airport continues to see growth, renovations, upgrades

KENOVA – Huntington Tri-State Airport Director Jerry Brienza said 2016 was a very pretty productive year.

It has been a year of more passengers, more revenue and infrastructural improvements for the airport.

Located less than 10 miles west of downtown Huntington, major renovations have been completed in order to advance the terminal and the runway.

“One of the things we have been able to do is secure $3 million in federal funding,” Brienza said.

The money is being used for a ramp rehabilitation project.

“We are in Phase III,” he said. “The project has been staggered over the past eight years.”

Phase III includes parts of the ramp on the commercial apron, the general apron and the air cargo apron, Brienza explained.

“This will complete the project,” he said. “This means we basically have all new ramps at the airport.”

Brienza said 2016 also saw the completion of a seal coat project.

“We put a rejuvenating fog-seal coat on the runway, which helps preserve the pavement we have down,” he said.

“We put in all new pavements about five years ago … this should prevent cracking and extend the life of the runway.”

Brienza said the airport started an environmental assessment in 2016.

“It covers approximately 80 percent of our airport property,” he said. “We will be able to start development on any part of the property that has been assessed.”

Brienza says by getting Phase II of the assessment completed, it would allow the airport property being marketed for development to be “shovel ready” for any developer that may want to build.

Moving forward on improvements

Several projects listed in the airport’s five-year capital improvement plan, submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration, have either been completed or are in the works.

In 2016, the airport also started a wildlife mitigation project.

“We had a very large pond on the south side of the airport,” Brienza said. “Ponds are known to be wildlife attractors, and, although we like wildlife, planes and wildlife are not friendly with each other, so we started draining the pond. We are putting in detention retaining to draw water away, so there will be no standing water on that side of the airport.”

Brienza said the project should be finished in a month.

The airport completed an access road study in 2016.

“We have one road coming up to the main terminal side of the airport, and we need another road to have secondary access,” he said. “It gives us improved safety and efficiency. Right now there is only one way in and out of the airport.”

Brienza said the study concluded the best alternative access road is coming from the top of the hill, where the road splits from off from general aviation to commercial aviation, and making a loop road back to the Fed Ex facility down at the bottom of the hill.

“The road would come right behind it and attach to the current access road,” he said.

A cost benefit analysis is ongoing, and initial cost estimates are around $12 million, according to Brienza.

“We are currently applying for grants to do the design work sometime in 2017,” he said. “This would put us in a position to apply for federal road funds in 2018 for construction of the new road.”

Also in 2016, the airport was able to secure an Americans with Disabilities Act grant.

“This will be used to improve our situation in our parking lot,” Brienza said. “Right now we have an ADA ramp that is not in the best shape, and we don’t have a needed elevator to really make us ADA compliant.”

The airport is in the design phase for a dual elevator and stairwell facility.

“We have picked out the design we want, and the construction should start in a few months,” Brienza said.

Not only will the dual elevators make it easier to get into the airport, but the covered stairway will ensure people are protected from inclement weather once they get inside the elevator/stairway system, he said.

The estimated cost of elevator and stairwell is $1.2 million, Brienza added.

Brienza said this would also be the first phase of the airport’s intermodal business center and garage project.

“It would accommodate the car rental companies at the airport as well as passenger parking, ticket counters, restaurant and baggage claim areas,” he said. “Along with a business center, we would lease out space to generate revenue. So the facility would be built around the new elevators and parking garage.”

The airport added a $90,000 piece of snow-removal equipment and an $80,000 terminal back-up generator.

What’s coming in 2017

The airport wrapped up 2016 projects with nearly completed taxiway design.

“We are reconstructing and relocating our current taxiway Alpha East,” Brienza said. “That design project was $900,000, and we are moving that taxiway further away from the runway so that we can accommodate larger aircraft at the airport.”

Construction will start mid-July 2017 with a total estimated cost of $10 million.

In 2017, the airport is using funds collected from car rental companies at the airport to move forward with a new car rental service area.

“This will accommodate the car rental’s car wash facility and fueling facilities,” Brienza said.

“We will be moving them down into the area where the remote parking area is now. It won’t look the same because we are going to knock down that hill and flatten that ground for the new car service facilities with employee parking and space to accommodate a small hotel operator to come in and construct a new hotel here.”

Another project, which Brienza calls the pride and joy of the airport, is a business development area, called the Tri-State Aeroplex.

In 2016, about $2.5 million in infrastructure improvements, including adding several utilities such as sewer, fire water, potable water and fiber, were completed on the 95-acre parcel, but Brienza said there is still $422,000 worth of utility improvements that have yet to be completed.

“We’ve completed most of the utilities, including water and sewer, and we have also brought fiber over there,” he said. “All we need is gas and electric, and we are close to having those as well.”

The hope is that the Aeroplex will be a place for companies to build maintenance and repair facilities, as well as avionic shops and aircraft paint shops. There also will be room for private hangars for aircraft storage. The Cabell County Commission has committed $50,000 to help with the improvements.

Brienza said the airport can now begin the process of marketing the land to outside companies.

“It’s very valuable land, because in West Virginia 100 acres of flat land is rare,” he said.

“What we anticipate is that it will be a place for someone to come in and put a big maintenance and repair facility, and then other businesses would be able to spur off of that like an avionic shop, aircraft paint shop and also room for many private hangers for aircraft storage. We are marketing the site with economic development leaders and groups in the Tri-State area that is substantially complete now.”

Brienza said an assessment of the airport’s inventory to identify and evaluate the resources necessary to attract and support aerospace to the greater Tri-State area is nearly complete.

“We want to become a certified aerospace-ready community status here,” he said. “That study is nearly wrapped up, and it appears we have the things necessary to be certified.”

In 2017 the airport is looking to expand its Transportation Security Administration lanes.

“Right now there is one line for passengers to go through and one machine,” he said. “We want to expand to two lanes to speed up the process. Right now we are in the design process.”

Travelers, personnel and more

The airport finished 2016 with slightly less than 100,000 outgoing passenger boardings, called enplanements, according to Beckie McKinley, marketing director at the airport.

“We were about 3 percent less than the previous year,” McKinley said. “A lot of that has to do with the number of seats available to sell on the aircrafts, and that was slightly down as well.”

However, McKinley said there has been an increase in enplanements since September 2016.

“Allegiant Air and American Airlines boarding increased significantly over this same time period in 2015,” she said. “January 2017 looks good as well, so we are hoping to continue this trend.”

National pilot shortages have also caused an increase in cancelled flights, Brienza added.

“Nobody is supplying pilots to the area due to rule changes for the number of training hours pilots need from 250 hours to 1,500 hours,” he explained. “This has affected the pilot supply for smaller airports and had an effect on the numbers of cancelled flights.”

The airport is performing a new economic impact study.

Ten years ago the Marshall University Center of Business and Economic Research conducted a two-part economic impact study that calculated the impact on output, employment and tax revenue as a result of the airport presence in the region.

The study found local airports are a vital part of any community because they connect residents with the rest of the country and the world. It also determined access to air transportation is critical to economic development and business growth in the region.

At the time the study was done in 2006, the airport employed 803 people, had an income of $21.1 million, which pumped $50.4 million back into the region, and resulted in $3.5 million in state and local tax revenue.

Since the time of the study, Brienza said the airport has grown tremendously, and he now has plans to pursue an updated economic impact study.

“We have looked at jobs and the overall economic impact, but now we are also looking at how things like the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard in Wayne County is going to economically impact the airport and how is the expansion of U.S. 52 and the Culloden interchange going to effect the economic impact of the airport,” he said. “We are taking a boarder view.”

Spring and summer continue to be the airport’s busiest flying seasons.

“Two of our flights, one to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the other to Punta Gorda, Florida, which is in the Fort Myers area, are seasonal,” she said. “Both are getting ready to start again for our spring flying season. Our summer season has also been extended to include the month of October. Service to Orlando and St. Pete are year-round.”

Of the two airlines that the airport offers, Allegiant Air and American Airlines, Allegiant captures the majority of the customers.

Brienza said Allegiant is able to service more passengers because they are flying bigger jets while American is using the smaller aircraft.

About of 70 percent of enplanements were with Allegiant.

The airport also announced appointment of Michael Wentz as the airport’s chief of police to oversee the airport’s Police Department.

Wentz brings 28 years of police department experience to his new role, including having served as a Tri-State Airport Police Officer since May 2016. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Military Police School and the West Virginia State Police Academy.

Prior to joining the airport, Wentz served in multiple law enforcement roles with agencies in Wayne, Ceredo and Kenova before retiring as sergeant/detective bureau commander in May 2016 from the Cabell County Sheriff’s Office. He resides in Huntington.

“Chief Wentz is well qualified and experienced to oversee the law enforcement and security functions at the airport,” Brienza said. “Nearly 200,000 passengers traveled through HTS in 2016, and we expect to meet or exceed that number in 2017. Keeping travelers, visitors and employees safe and secure has been and remains the airport’s top priority. I’m excited to have Chief Wentz leading these efforts and am confident he’ll continue to be a great asset to the airport and community.”

Airport police officers are employees of the Tri-State Airport Authority and are state certified and empowered to enforce the state laws of West Virginia within the geographical boundaries of the airport.

Brienza says the airport police department’s primary function is the protection and safety of the general public as they pass through the airport.

“The department works closely with the Transportation Security Administration and all other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to carry out its mission,” he said.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter at @FredPaceHD.

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