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Airport officials talk upgrades, litigation

By Marcus Constantino, Multimedia reporter

Yeager Airport officials announced progress on the runway extension project, and discussed terminal upgrades and the airport’s legal defense in Freedom Industries-related litigation at a board meeting Wednesday.

Airport Director Rick Atkinson announced Mark Nowak, an attorney for Pittsburgh-based lawfirm Clark Hill, will be the lead counsel for the airport’s defense against a federal lawsuit filed in June that alleges the airport did not properly contain runoff from the runway extension, which allowed water to flow downhill to Freedom Industries, ultimately contributing to erosion on the bottom of tank 396, which leaked more than 10,000 gallons of MCHM and PPH, contaminating the regional water supply and leading to a ban on water use for as many as nine days.

Charleston attorney and board member Trig Salsbery said he thinks when the facts come to light in court, the airport will be cleared of contributing to the problem.

“Saying we changed the watershed or the flow of water coming off the mountain, and that water then incrementally reached the Freedom Industries facilities and rusted out those tanks ... I don’t think there’s any merit in that, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” Salsbery said. “I think there will be interesting facts that will come out of this that the plaintiffs won’t like.”

Salsbery said any runoff coming down the hill from the airport toward the Freedom Industries site would be the same amount of runoff that has always come down the hill. Even that runoff would be diverted away from Freedom Industries by Barlow Drive and the two ditches that line it, and the railroad tracks between Barlow Drive and Freedom Industries.

“There are many legal defenses we will be presenting and many facts that we will be presenting,” Salsbery said.

Work on the obstruction removal project for Runway 5 is going faster than expected. The board approved a $7,274.83 increase in the contract for engineering firm L.R. Kimball. Richard L. Holes, an engineer for the firm, said about 30 to 40 percent of the site has been blasted to its final grade, but there’s still a lot more work to do.

“They’ve removed roughly 550,000 of 1.3 cubic million yards (of dirt),” Hole said. “They’re not even halfway of the amount of cut that has to come off that mountain. Even though you see a lot of area that is down to final grade, there’s a lot of dirt that has to come out of there.”

He said crews are moving 2-3 times more dirt per day than they had anticipated, and that right now, weather permitting, he thinks the earthwork will be done by Thanksgiving.

The board reviewed bids for upgrades to the terminal, including a new passenger boarding bridge and upgrades to seven other bridges. The upgrades would add power and air conditioning units to each bridge, which would provide electricity and hot or cold air to the airplace while it is at the gate. The upgrades will cost the airport about $1.9 million, but because airlines will no longer have to burn jet fuel to power the plane while parked, board member Charlie Jones said it would save the airlines about $250 per stop, making the airport more attractive to them.

“That gives them power to run all the instrument and lights and stuff so they don’t have to run an on-board generator,” Atkinson said. “Burning jet fuel, and jet fuel is $6 a gallon, it’s an expensive proposition to run it. They’ll have to pay for the electricity, but they’ll have a net savings of around $200 per turn.”

The board also announced progress on attempts to recruit airlines to service Orlando and New York City. Yeager Airport marketing director Brian Belcher said he met with seven different airlines at a recent conference in June, and that two have expressed interest in picking up the route to Orlando.

The airport is trying to draw in an airline using a $700,000 Small Community Air Service Development grant it received last September, but hasn’t had an airline commit yet.

“I think we’ve got them to the edge of the cliff, now we’ve just got to push them off,” Belcher said.

He said United continues to tell him it is interested in bringing back the New York City route, but he said he has not been able to get the airline to commit to it.

Atkinson explained that routes into Newark are highly coveted by airports and that the only way Yeager would have a chance to get the route back is if another route at Newark goes away.

“I think they know the route will be profitable and the incentive package we have and the grant will limit some of that risk,” Atkinson said of the Orlando route. “On New York, it’s congested aviation real estate. Everyone wants to go there and we will continue to pitch it, but basically someone has to lose service for us to gain service.”

Flight data released in the airport’s monthly air service report indicates a 3.7 percent decrease in total seats sold from July 2013 to July 2014. Spirit Airlines’ flight to Myrtle Beach is the most-filled flight at 93 percent capacity, on average, while US Airways’ flight to Philadelphia recorded a 67 percent load factor. That flight began June 5.

The board also noted that the Philadelphia flight gives Charleston fliers one-stop access to many new one-stop European and Middle East destinations, including Amsterdam, Germany; Athens, Greece; Edinburgh, Scotland; Glasgow, Scotland; Munich, Germany; Shannon, Ireland; Tel Aviv, Israel; Venice, Italy; and Zurich, Switzerland.

Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or marcus.c@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.


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