A team approach

Engaging with communities and taking steps to show the economic benefits of projects can help secure the long-term future of US airports and the regions they serve, writes Ryan Pearce.

It was an adage that drove development in the western United States: When the railroad came to town, you thrived. When it left, you died.

While a bit hyperbolic, that transportation revolution was transformative, not only for travel and commerce, but for development. As Union Pacific proudly notes in its history, more than 7,000 cities and towns west of the Missouri River began as depots and water stops.

Arguably, the job the railroad had as an economic driver has today been assumed by the world’s airports. From the busiest on the planet, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL), to smaller gateways such as Huntsville (HSV) and Bessemer Municipal (EKY) in the US state of Alabama, airports of all sizes have a direct impact on the economic vitality and prosperity of the cities and regions they serve.

As ACI-North America noted in its pre-COVID issued 2017 report, Taking America Beyond the Horizon: The Economic Impact of Commercial Service Airports, airports in the US account for $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and support nearly 11.5 million jobs.

Yet, for as high profile as airports can be in their communities, what are often unseen are their infrastructure needs, whether those needs be due to age or use that has exceeded the facility’s original scope.

The same ACI report notes that airport infrastructure improvements in the US top $115 billion, with most airport funding coming through sources other than taxpayer funds.

That last fact is key, as airport owners and operators eye improvements and upgrades to their facilities and airfields. While user fees are often the primary source of revenues for airport operators, fees alone usually aren’t enough to pay for upgrades and improvements.

Knowing not only where to access the funds but how those funds must be used is as vital as the plans that drive an airport improvement project.

By today’s economics, airport improvements and expansions are as much about land-use and a financing exercise as they are about engineering and security. Putting together the pieces can stretch an airport manager beyond their comfort zone, especially for small to midsize airports.

Stepping back from the details, though, to see a project in a holistic light, managers can successfully elevate infrastructure improvement to economic development.

Tap into the community, industrial boards

Like the railroads that brought economic prosperity to towns they visited, commercial airports, including general aviation (GA) facilities, have the same effect. A joint report released in April 2023 by the National Association of State Aviation Officials and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials found that for every dollar invested in GA airports, $75 was returned on average by companies utilising those facilities.

This trickle-down effect is real and demonstrates how airport projects are community development projects. With this lens, airports have a spectrum of community expertise at their disposal that they can lean on to develop an appropriate plan for their projects.

Beginning with airport boards, these advisory groups usually are staffed with people who are invested in the community and bring insights into the area’s needs and potential that an airport can help meet or seed.

Beyond recognising the demand for more hangars or a larger runway, they could identify opportunities to complement an airport’s transportation value with elements to attract technology companies or act as an education centre.

Industrial development authorities also give project teams a partner to identify and secure federal and state incentive packages, tax breaks, or grants to advance projects. Because engineers and architects work with the FAA for all airport improvement reviews, they see where funding drives a project. Partnering with industrial development staff, they can represent the interests of the owner and help navigate the myriad of funding streams that can secure a project’s goal.

Communicate a vision

Focusing on the business development opportunities of an airport project allows airport managers and boards to provide investors with a clear picture of what their investment could look like and how that facilities business activities in the community.

Yet, for the community members, what inspires some can also aggravate others. Traffic, both in the air and on the ground, as well as noise and light pollution created by the traffic or the construction, itself, can easily generate opposition to a project. Navigating the issues that could adversely affect a project takes working knowledge of zoning mandates and guidelines in addition to the vision for where an airport can take a community.

For airport leaders, this means communicating both how their projects will proceed in addition to how they will serve the community.

In this respect, help can often be found from the engineering and design teams that have navigated these political waters before on other projects – and sometimes in different industries.

Indeed, they can be a valuable resource for airport project managers by helping them develop appropriate outlines and explanations that support an airport’s business plan for the community to see.

This exercise can have a dual purpose, helping owners identify sustainable revenue sources that support operations through five, 10 or 20-year plans. Fuel flow, landing, parking fees, concessions – the right portfolio of documents outlining how to develop potential revenue sources can help airport leaders position operations for a maximum return on investment.

Spotlight on Hunstville International Airport

For Butch Roberts, CEO of the Port of Huntsville, the profusion of office buildings, warehouses and aviation industries surrounding North Alabama’s Huntsville International Airport (HSV) is a natural progression of the economic development efforts that the airport has been a part of for more than 50 years.

“The quality of our relationships with regional government and community organisations invested in the economic growth of our region has allowed us to work closely together to produce the kind of prosperity and employment that is the envy of cities across the country,” says Roberts.

This economic development partnership helps promote local assets that attract commercial enterprises to the booming Huntsville area, including access to commercial passenger flights, intermodal transportation by rail and air, and available land to develop.

HSV is situated on 7,400 acres and serves nearly 1.5 million passengers with 13 non-stop flights on five airlines. Other Port of Huntsville operating entities are the Jetplex Industrial Park, Spaceport, and International Intermodal Center, linking Huntsville to the global economy.

The Port of Huntsville is located near Redstone Arsenal – home to more than 70 organisations including the US Army, NASA, and the FBI.

Plan beyond the project

As demonstrated, a community engagement strategy is a good business practice because what occurs within the boundaries of an airport reaches far beyond its property and can impact on both land development and residents.

For any airport improvement project to be successful in today’s climate, airport operators need to be mindful of those impacts and think long-term.

What are the population growth trends? What are the distribution trends that could influence air freight? What are the trends in environmental regulations? What are the corporate or industrial investment trends that could put more demand on air service?

In Huntsville, regional population growth of 16% in the past decade followed the area’s development as a vital aerospace and manufacturing hub. The growth not only impacted on the international airport but also nearby Pryor Field Regional Airport (DCU) in Decatur.

The FAA estimates that airport development will exceed $62 billion in the next four years. Small and medium hubs are predicted to represent the fastest part of that infrastructure growth.

With the right partners, the right plan, and right approach, managers and owners of these vital components to the US’s air traffic ecosystem can ensure that their communities thrive for the long-term by securing the future of their airport.

About the author

Ryan Pearce, PE, is vice president of aviation with Goodwyn Mills Cawood. He can be reached at ryan.pearce@gmcnetwork.com

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