To succeed, airport must be willing to change course

The already bumpy ride to an extended runway at the Morgantown Municipal Airport has gotten even more turbulent. What was originally predicted as a 5-year, $50 million venture has swiftly ballooned to seven years and $70 million — and we suspect those numbers will continue to grow.

It seems every time the project builds momentum, the money dries up and progress grinds to a halt.

The Federal Aviation Administration has repeatedly shortchanged the Morgantown Municipal Airport in favor of higher priority projects. But the airport hasn’t helped itself by leaving available federal dollars on the table. The FAA regularly allocates infrastructure dollars based on an airport’s enplanements (number of paying customers who boarded a plane). Falling short of the 10,000 minimum cuts an airport’s annual Airport Improvement Fund allocation from $1 million to $150,000. Morgantown hasn’t hit 10,000 enplanements since 2011. That’s left $4.25 million on the table just in the last four years.

Not all the blame can be placed on the airport itself. Silver Airways, which took over as the essential air service in 2012, was infamously unreliable, regularly canceling 30% or more of its flights. So Morgantown airport switched to Southern Airways Express. Southern has been more reliable, regularly completing 75% to 100% of its flights. But the airport’s reputation was already damaged.

Here’s the conundrum: The airport needs a longer runway in order to offer larger commercial flights and more options, but it needs funding to do that. People don’t like to use Morgantown’s airport because of its small planes, limited offerings and what people still believe is its unreliable service. Without people using the airport, the airport can’t secure the funding it needs to finish making improvements, so it can only continue with its limited offerings — and people continue to avoid it.

So how do we stop this cycle?

People can start using the Morgantown Municipal Airport more often, but the onus is really on the airport. It and Southern have to improve the quality and reliability of the services they do offer. That’s not just a matter of not canceling flights. It’s also a matter of making the airport a comfortable place to be and making transportation easily available to and from the airport.

The City of Morgantown, as sole owner and operator, should consider creating an airport authority in conjunction with the county and surrounding municipalities. 

A thriving airport would benefit the entire Greater Morgantown Area. A better local airport would be a selling point for bringing national events and competitions to Mylan Park. Locals could catch flights to more places — like Myrtle Beach. Opposing teams and WVU fans could fly straight into town from all over the country for game days. Plus, Greater Morgantown could better market itself to tourists as both a destination and starting point for regional adventures.

Making the county as well as Westover, Star City and Granville stakeholders in the airport could open additional funding opportunities that will allow improvements to get done faster.

To stop the cycle, business can’t continue as usual. But Morgantown and the airport must be willing to change course.

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