If you live in Huntington, you know that the city was named after railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington and that rail transportation is still alive and well today. You also know that Huntington has always been and still is a transportation hub and a connector between the east and the west.
But unlike the old days when rail led the way, our local airport is now the economic engine for Huntington and the surrounding Tri-State region of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Our goal is to ensure it will remain that way for decades to come.
Our airport is no small economic driver. It helps connect the area’s industries with out-of-state businesses and larger markets. The airport alone contributes $3.5 million in state and local tax revenue, produces $50.4 million in economic output and supports 1,300 local jobs. Its auxiliary enterprises – companies working out of the airport itself – contribute $31.5 million to our local economy. Hospitals like St. Mary’s Medical Center also rely on Tri-State Airport for expedient medical transportation and emergency services.
Without Tri-State Airport, the Huntington area would wane – fewer jobs, fewer visitors to the area, millions of dollars in lost wages and lost revenue to local and state governments in our regional economy. But this is a larger threat than you might imagine.
Currently there is an idea in our nation’s capital to privatize our air traffic control system and put this infrastructure in the hands of the biggest airlines, which want to prioritize their bottom line and their biggest hubs and airports.
These large airlines are seeking to wrangle air traffic control away from the Federal Aviation Administration and place it under the control of private stakeholders. Let’s be clear, the proposal being pushed by the big airlines is not really “privatization,” so the cost savings and other benefits that come to mind when we hear that term would not be realized.
This proposal would create a government-sponsored enterprise along the lines of Amtrak, the U.S. Postal Service or Fannie Mae. It would not be subject to market competition or even a contract bidding process. When this too-big-to-fail entity ultimately needs to be bailed out, as the privatized air traffic control provider in the UK was in 2002, taxpayers on Main Street here in Huntington will be holding the buckets, not those on K Street or Wall Street.
In the end, access to air transportation has always been fundamentally connected to the economic development of our community. For the sake of local businesses and the economic growth of the area, it is essential that we not hand the aviation system to private interests and the big airlines.
Steve Williams is mayor of Huntington.