Within weeks, Augusta Regional Airport officials should have an idea of what they want the airport to look like in 20 years.
But signing off on that plan means depending on passenger numbers and air carriers that do not yet exist - an educated shot in the dark that even officials from other airports say is unavoidable.
Asheville (N.C.) Regional Airport Marketing Director Kathryn Solee described how her airport recently completed an update of its own master plan, which provides airports with a road map for long-term growth.
"What we have done is a combination of several things that you look at," she said. "You look at your history, you look at the national trends, you look at what you're doing at the airport."
Before sending the plan to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval, consultants for Asheville Regional had to figure out how they expect the airport to grow and how many passengers they predict will use it in the future.
They came up with numbers on the "conservative side," that Ms. Solee said FAA officials would find realistic.
The FAA strongly urges airports to have a master plan on file and update it every five to seven years.
Although there are some doubts about whether Augusta Regional's master plan is shaping up to reflect realistic passenger projections, the plan does appear to include figures similar to Asheville's - an airport similar in size to Augusta and with comparable air service.
Asheville's master plan predicts the number of passengers flying out of the airport will grow to 836,845 by 2019 - up from the 283,209 passengers in 1999, when the plan was implemented.
Augusta Regional's plan, complied by consultants from Black & Veatch, estimates the number of passengers boarding planes here will grow steadily from its current level of 205,105 to 735,200 by 2020.
The number of aircraft servicing the airport will increase from 14 to 63, the plan predicts.
Those numbers assume that at some point Augusta Regional will get more air carriers, including a low-cost carrier such as Air Tran Airways or Southwest Airlines.
Three carriers service Augusta Regional - Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair and US Airways.
The report says the airport would best handle this increase in air and passenger traffic by building parallel runways and a midfield terminal - an issue that has proved contentious among aviation commissioners during recent years.
Ideally, the airport should operate with two parallel runways, separated by at least 4,300 feet, the airport's consultants told commissioners.
Between the runways, the airport should build a 100,000- to 150,000-square-foot, two-story airport terminal with seven gates.
Currently, the airport's two runways intersect each other, and a 46,000-square-foot terminal with four airline gates sits on the outside edge of the main runway.
Aviation Commissioner Whitney O'Keefe said he will need more convincing that passenger levels are realistic enough to warrant the $95 million the master plan would cost to implement before the final version is approved.
"We need to use a more reasonable level of passengers," he said.
The board's chairwoman, Marcie Wilhelmi, said there was nothing wrong with planning for the large number of passengers because actual construction would take place only when increased demand and new service warrant it.
Augusta Regional has never had a master plan, but consultants at Black & Veatch have been working for the past year and a half on what they think the airport is capable of becoming.
The FAA is paying the $750,000 bill for developing the plan, and airport officials expect it to be finished by summer's end.
Two suggestions that Black & Veatch came up with, though not considered to be the ideal choices, are also on the drawing board.
One idea keeps the airport's current intersecting runways. It also keeps the airport's existing terminal in the same place, but calls for rebuilding it and making it larger.
The second idea suggests building parallel runways, separated by a minimum of 700 feet of space, and keeping the terminal where it is now.
Now that the commission has selected a preferred plan, the consultants will do more work on how the airport can finance it. Once they receive that financial information, the commissioners will have to decide whether they can commit to it.
But Aviation Commissioner Ernie Smith said he thought it was a good sign the entire board at least agreed to continue looking at a single alternative.
"I guess what we're really excited about," he said, "is that we're making a concerted step forward."
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.
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