It was quiet enough to hear the rustling of tree leaves by the runway at the Anniston Regional Airport on Tuesday morning.
Absent was the roar of jet engines. Planes were nowhere to be found, save for those stored in hangars.
The airport was closed, but not for lack of business. Crews were busy restriping the runway so pilots could better see it from the air.
The city of Anniston has funnelled more than $2 million of federal money to the airport in recent years for upgrades or to develop plans for later improvements. On Monday, the Anniston City Council applied for another $500,000 federal grant to assess the airport’s aging drainage system. City and airport officials say consistent upgrades will keep the facility up to federal standards, but also make it more attractive for use by businesses, the military and private fliers. Having a modern airport can also help lure new industry to the area, they say.
Scott Wallace, general manager of Anniston Aviation, the airport’s fixed-base operator, said he has seen use of the facility increase in recent years since the 2008 Great Recession.
“In 2008 and 2009 it declined with the downturn in the economy, but the last two years have been pretty good,” Wallace said. “People are starting to utilize it more — freight has picked up.”
According to the most recent figures from the Federal Aviation Administration, in 2014 there were 23,107 landings and takeoffs at the airport. Those operations included a combination of uses by the military, freight deliveries, corporate personnel travel and private and chartered plane use. The airport doesn’t receive regular passenger-service flights from airlines.
Toby Bennington, city planner, said the city’s long-term plan is not to expand the airport, but to keep the facility as updated as possible.
“It’s creating an environment that invites more general aviation use,” Bennington said. “It opens it up for more private and military use and grows freighting opportunities.”
The approximately $83,000 restriping project underway at the airport is one of several federally-funded upgrade projects for the facility this year. In recent weeks, crews installed about $400,000 worth of new aviation signs.
“Our signs were getting old and it was time for them to be replaced,” Wallace said.
When the colors of the different signs start to fade, it makes them harder to see at night, Wallace said.
The drainage grant application the council applied for Monday will pay for a full assessment of the system, which is around 30 years old and decaying. Once the assessment is complete, the city will apply for more grant money to make whatever repairs are deemed necessary.
“Water and airports do not get along, so it’s important to keep that under control,” said Stephanie Blankenship, executive director of the Aviation Council of Alabama, an advocacy group that represents aviation in the state. “Erosion can undermine a runway and it’s something every airport has to deal with.”
Blankenship said keeping an airport upgraded can help lure more business to its area.
“I think in some cases, your airport is the first vision of the area a visitor has when they fly in there,” Blankenship said. “So you want the airport to look nice and representative of the entire city.”
Anniston has what is called a general aviation airport — a facility that handles commercial but no regular passenger flights like those available in Birmingham or Atlanta. According to the Aviation Council, the vast majority of airports in the state, more than 60, are designated as general aviation.
“General aviation is very important to communities and economic development,” Blankenship said. “It gives them a gateway to the rest of the rest of the world.”
Nearby Gadsden’s Northeast Alabama Regional Airport is general aviation with operations comparable to those in Anniston. According to the FAA, the Gadsden airport had 23,886 landings and takeoffs last year.
Fred Sington, manager of Gadsden’s airport, said business at the facility has increased in recent months, in part due to upgrades.
“We’ve had a lot more private and a lot more military traffic,” Sington said. “We’ve been redoing our main runway — we’ve repaved and remodeled.”
Sington said the airport has been a boon to the local economy.
“If you don’t have an airport capable of handling at least medium-sized jets, you’ve got a problem getting in transportation to bring in industry,” he said.
Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, said Anniston’s airport is way to lure in new industry.
“It’s more important to some companies than others, but the fact that it’s here gives us a leg up on a lot of competition,” Hopper said. “It’s an arrow in our quiver and definitely something we can use to shoot at industry when they come visit.”