Extended Runway For Erie Airport To Be Dedicated Sunday

Valerie Myers

Airport is equipped to handle bigger planes and direct flights to distant destinations, but a challenging economy and soaring fuel prices could ground airport prospects.

Aug. 22–Open for business.
The message on billboards, television commercials and promotional materials lets passengers and airlines know that Erie International Airport’s $82 million runway extension is at last a done deal.
After four decades of planning and three years of construction, the airport is equipped to handle bigger planes and direct flights to distant destinations.
Airport and government officials will formally dedicate the extended runway, the largest capital improvement project in airport history, on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a very proud moment,” airport Executive Director Chris Rodgers said. “There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction in being involved with something that positively impacts the greater good and positively contributes to the local economy.”
The airport pumped $165 million into the Erie region in jobs, spending and tourism in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Bureau of Aviation.
By extending the runway 1,000 feet, to 7,500 feet, airport officials expect that additional airlines will invest more money in the region with flights to and from Orlando, Fla., and other destinations. The Erie airport currently offers service to and from Cleveland via United Airlines; to and from Detroit, aboard Delta Air Lines; and to and from Philadelphia via US Airways.
But a challenging economy and soaring fuel prices could ground airport prospects.
Fifty-one U.S. passenger and cargo airlines filed for bankruptcy since 2000 and other airlines reduced the number of domestic flights by almost 14 percent from June 2007 to June 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“I think we will be prepared for additional service in the event that things turn around, but from my perspective as a travel agent and what I’m seeing in the airline industry, I don’t think it will happen overnight,” said Lisa Cappabianca, owner of Erie’s Cappabianca Travel. Cappabianca served five years on the Erie Regional Airport Authority, through 2012.
Still, the flight reductions mainly targeted short trips and small planes. It’s the longer hauls and larger planes that Erie airport officials hope to attract.
“Airlines are reducing and eliminating aircraft from their fleets and building others that are more fuel-efficient and profitable,” Rodgers said. “As they deploy those aircraft, they’re looking for places to put them where they can make money. Up until now, Erie was not on that map.”
Erie was off the map because of restrictions on the old 6,500-foot runway that resulted in the cancellation of about 20 percent of the airport’s scheduled flights each year when visibility was less than a half-mile and the cloud ceiling was below 400 feet.
Those cancellations were costly for airlines, Erie businessman Lou Porreco said. Porreco served on the Erie Regional Airport Authority for 28 years, until 2009, and took part in planning, financing and logistics negotiations for the extended runway.
“When aircraft are diverted to another airport in Cleveland or Buffalo or Detroit and airlines have to put passengers up overnight, bus them or bring another aircraft in, the cost is very punishing,” Porreco said.
The extended runway has more liberal takeoff and landing standards: minimum quarter-mile visibility and cloud ceiling of 200 feet. That means fewer flight cancellations, and carriers are taking notice, Rodgers said.
“An airlines person told me that before the runway was extended they couldn’t serve our airport, and now they can look at it,” Rodgers said. “It’s just like a switch was flipped.”
Runway improvements are worth the multimillion-dollar cost even if the airport doesn’t land new flights, Porreco said. The improvements include a 920-foot extension of the safety area at the runway’s west end, near Asbury Road. The new 1,000-foot buffer and a matching buffer at the east end of the runway meet federal safety standards for the first time in two decades.
“It was never our priority to build the extension to accommodate widebody jets. That will be a bonus,” Porreco said. “The number-one reason was safety.”
Planning for the longer runway began in 1974 with an FAA-required master plan that urged a two-stage extension. The runway was extended by 500 feet, to 6,500 feet, in 1978.
The second, more-complicated extension was completed last fall after dozens of property acquisitions, a second rerouting of Powell Avenue and the disposition of two nearby golf courses and a federal Superfund site.
“There were a lot of naysayers that thought that the scope of the project was far too large for our authority and our community to successfully complete,” Porreco said. “In the end, everybody came together, and that took an effort on behalf of the city, county and Millcreek Township. All three governments had to agree to participate with the Airport Authority to make this work — and it did work.”
Government and business worked together so well that companies considering locating in Erie will be impressed, Airport Authority President Frank Stefano said.
“This project was done in less time than allowed and for millions of dollars below estimate — during an economic downturn. When employers come looking at Erie, they’ll find the talent and resources that can complete a massive project like this ahead of schedule and under budget,” Stefano said.
The project’s three major construction contracts were awarded for about $12 million below estimates. The extended runway opened in November, a year ahead of schedule.
Just about everyone involved in the project is happy the meetings are over, the major decisions have been made, and no more money will be spent apart from repaving a portion of the old runway.
“There were times when it was all almost overwhelming,” Cappabianca said.

VALERIE MYERS can be reached at 878-1913 or by e-mail. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmyers.

Copyright 2013 – Erie Times-News, Pa.

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