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Progress slows in deal to bring airline to E’town

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Chairman: Reorganizations have hampered procedure

By Marty Finley

Joe Yates has stopped making projections about the arrival of a passenger airline service at Addington Field Elizabethtown Regional Airport, which would provide Elizabethtown and the airport’s service area with connection to a major hub.

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Yates, chairman of the Elizabethtown Airport Board, said the board still is working angles to secure major airline services at the general aviation airport but the process has been bogged down by several factors, including the reorganization of airlines the airport has been negotiating with. Those changes have tempered their interest in branching out to new markets, he said.

“Not saying it’s a stopper, but it has slowed things down,” Yates said.

Mayor Tim Walker said the entire airline industry is changing as he learned after attending a conference in which speakers outlined mergers and reconfigurations of business plans among commercial airlines.

“It’s just going to be awhile before the industry comes back,” Walker said.

The airport has been in active talks with two airlines, which have not been identified by the board to avoid jeopardizing the negotiations. Yates said lines of communication are still open and the airport board is “working it,” but he did not speculate on a time frame when contacted Thursday.

Even if a deal is met soon, he said, it would probably be a 12-month period until the launch of the airline. In other words, Yates said, a deal tomorrow would not put an airline on the ground next week.

Yates last year said he could envision a deal by October or November of 2012, but nothing tangible materialized. Prior to that, Louisville-based consultant Luke Schmidt briefed Elizabethtown City Council on a plan to lure a capable airline by the end of 2011.

To prepare for passenger service, the airport has spent millions of dollars on upgrades to meet federal and state guidelines, including expanding its runway to 6,000 feet. Yates last year said the infrastructure is in place to make the airport “regional jet ready” with the size and resources to accommodate jets as large as Boeing 757s on its runway.

On Thursday, Yates said runway and taxiway improvements are more than 90 percent complete with most of the pavement work done and upgraded lighting systems in place.

The airport also plans to finish implementation of an Instrument Landing System to improve the airport’s all-weather capability for incoming flights. The last phase, which will cost roughly $500,000, will produce a glide slope, a navigation tool indicated by a radio beacon as the proper path for an airplane to use when approaching a landing strip.

Yates said the airport board still needs money to secure the glide slope. Acquiring state or local assistance for part of the work would be the cheapest route to finish the project, he said.

The airport, in correlation, must receive Part 139 Airport Certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow for passenger service. Yates said the paperwork process to receive this certification can be slow and methodical.

“We have to have all of this work done before we get the airline,” he said.

Should the airport ultimately land an airline, it would be required to build a passenger terminal that would cost “in excess of $4 million,” according to Yates. Officials have said the airport likely would apply for state grants to cover the cost.

But the airport must also produce money upfront to assist the airline with startup costs. Most airlines ask for guarantees of $2 million annually for a two-year period, but Yates said this does not mean the airline automatically receives $4 million. Instead, the money would be obtained if needed. Yates last year said the board has studied other airports near military installations and found many only spent a quarter of a million dollars to assist with startup.

The airline service, if achieved, would serve a 24-county region of 645,000 people, including the Elizabethtown and Bowling Green Metropolitan Statistical Areas and cities such as Glasgow, Campbellsville, Lebanon, Leitchfield and Morgantown, according to a report published by the airport.

Yates is holding out cautious hope for development.

“Hopefully we’ll get something going fairly soon, but I’d hate to put a timeline on it,” he said.

Walkersaid he believes improvements should be continued at the airport with a focus on making it the best general aviation airport around for customers.

“I just think we need to step back and re-evaluate our airport,” he said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.