Airport Could Become Economic Hub
December 11, 2013
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  • Tallahassee Regional Airport enters 2014 with more construction activity scheduled, plans for terminal improvements, and a soon-to-be-named new director of aviation to oversee those activities and others.

    And Thursday, representatives from Imagine Tallahassee will make their final pitch that the airport become the center of an economic development plan to create a commercial hub supported by aviation, real estate and business expansion.

    The plan’s proponents maintain that TLH remains the key to furthering the region’s economic expansion. It can generate activity not only as air service grows and airport access gets better, but as the 1,000 acres of unused airport property available become business locations.

    Sue Dick, a member of the Imagine Tallahassee Steering Committee, is chair of the Airport Advisory Committee and president of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. Major aircraft manufacturers, she notes, have established operations in Mobile, Jacksonville, Melbourne and Atlanta — giving Tallahassee a central vantage point.

    “I think we are in a great position. We are within 400 miles of four of the major maintenance facilities that are out there in the aviation sector. Not only do we have land where supplier companies who are feeding into that market can potentially locate, but we also have the ability to train workforce to work in that sector,” Dick said.

    Economic development officials from Leon are working with neighboring counties to spread that word, while Northwest Florida is aggressively promoting the area as ripe for more aviation industry growth.

    Some of that growth is showing up in the statistics on air travel. For the airport’s 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, TLH had a total of 697,661 passengers use its facilities, a gain of 5.1 percent from fiscal 2012.

    For the calendar year through Oct. 31, total passengers likewise had improved — up 2.1 percent from the comparable period in 2012.

    “I think as we look to next year, the story is going to be the runway project,” said David Pollard, deputy director of aviation. The two-stage effort began in 2011 with upgrades to the north-south (18-36) runway, which was lengthened from 6,076 to 7,000 feet.

    In the second part that starts Jan. 8, airport officials will close the east-west (9-27) runway for a complete rebuild so that the landing strip conforms to the latest federal aviation requirements. All aircraft operations will shift to the north-south runway while that construction takes place. The job includes lighting upgrades and relocation of the ground-based navigation system.

    The work on runway 9-27 will correct a change in elevation of the pavement that created a hump, creating the potential for a small plane being hidden from view of a departing aircraft.

    “What that does is bring it up to the latest FAA guidelines and standards,” said Pollard of the reconstruction.

    Inside the terminal, airport officials plan to reconfigure baggage screening operations at the ticket counter. Pollard said TLH will switch to an in-line configuration in which the large machines will go behind the counters, with outbound conveyors that are wider and can accommodate full-size luggage, golf bags and other large pieces easily.

    The objective is a better check-in process for travelers, utilization of newer technology and to incorporate self-service kiosks where fliers can print their own boarding passes.

    “Those are some of the changing dynamics of the air carriers,” Pollard said. “They need less space at the ticket counter.”

    The project list is a function of the airport’s terminal master plan, which was prepared by aviation consultants who studied the existing facilities and operations, along with future service demands.

    “What we are looking at down the road is a comprehensive and complete terminal modernization plan,” Pollard said. The pace of the work is dictated by the availability of funding, including grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation. “That’s the next step — getting that phased approach — plus working with tenants, airport users and the public on what they want to see.”

    As for air service, TLH picked up new flights this year. The American Eagle subsidiary of American Airlines began a second direct flight last February from Tallahassee to Dallas-Fort Worth. Regional carrier Silver Airways began offering two weekday flights from Tallahassee to Orlando in November.

    City Commissioner Scott Maddox, who has been active in airport issues since he was first elected to local public office in 1993, says efforts to expand service remain a priority.

    “Recently, we have had rougher times because of the economy and a lot of different factors. So we’ve gotten less flights and higher prices for them,” Maddox said. “We are in the midst of turning that around and I think we will be successful.”

    Maddox is among those who see a broader role for the airport in business, not just in the travel industry.

    “We have great economic development potential at the airport. You are looking at 1,000 acres of undeveloped land. This could become a transportation hub and be good business for the airport, which will be good business for Tallahassee,” Maddox said.

    The Imagine Tallahassee proposal for the airport consists of $15 million in funding over 10 years to build necessary infrastructure and take other steps that lead to the expansion of businesses already at the airport, and the addition of others on the land the city has there. Local officials want to supplement those efforts by actively recruiting companies in aviation, manufacturing, distribution and training — and making sure there’s a talent pool available to recruit from.