Originally created 08/24/02

Wildly unrealistic

No one should be surprised at Comair's decision not to restore daily flights between Augusta and Cincinnati. Despite all the happy talk from the likes of Ken Kraemer and Marcie Wilhelmi, the surprise would have been if Comair had brought back the Augusta Regional flights it canceled during the pilots' strike of 2001.

Comair's announcement came at the same time U.S. Airways filed for bankruptcy, American Airlines began to radically retrench, and the airline industry, as a whole, told the business world it lost nearly $4 billion the first six months of the year.

Clearly, the impact of Sept. 11 is still being felt and most of the airlines, even if they want to expand services, don't have the resources to do so. It's painful, but the airline industry is adjusting its expectations downward. Augusta Regional must do the same.

The 20-year master plan for the airport, put together by Black and Veatch and spearheaded by Wilhelmi, Aviation Commission chairwoman, and Kraemer, the airport's executive director, is wildly unrealistic - $92 million just for the first phase alone.

That expenditure, which airport officials promise won't cost city taxpayers a nickel, anticipates 433,000 annual passengers by 2005 (just 20 months away), up from about 116,000 yearly passengers today. This airport has potential, but let's be realistic.

The Federal Aviation Authority has to give a green light to the master plan and the hope by the plan's critics, which include this newspaper, is that the agency will turn it down.

Consider the first order of business - building a new terminal. We're all for that. But not where Black and Veatch wants to put it - smack-dab in the middle of the airfield. This calls for eliminating the existing east-west runway, buying additional land and adding a 6,000-foot parallel runway. An airfield without an east-west runway can be risky - it takes away a landing and takeoff option in windy or inclement weather.

It will cost more than $50 million to tear up the east-west runway to make room for and to build the new terminal, leaving the airfield with only one runway indefinitely - a terrible idea.

The new terminal, located a good distance from the airport's entry points, would also be inconvenient for drivers to get to.

To sum up, the current master plan is way too expensive, insanely unrealistic, painfully inconvenient - and these don't even include serious environmental issues yet to be dealt with.

Is there a better, more sensible plan available? Yes. Aviation consultants at the LPA Group developed an affordable $25 million plan last year that would build a new terminal in the same area as the current facility, but does not call for any re-configuration of the runways, except for repairs.

Augusta could wind up like Melbourne, Fla., or Topeka, Kan. - communities much like ours in geography and population. They invested up to $200 million in terminal and other improvements, but the new business never came. Melbourne has only two flights a day; Topeka a few more, but millions still must be spent each year to maintain these white elephants. Don't let that happen here.


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