Aviation is a vital component of WV’s future

Aviation is a vital component of WV’s future

The aviation is changing and what worked in the past may no longer be relevant in the future. Fortunately this is an area where West Virginia is paying close attention. The state’s airports, educational institutions, industry, and legislature are acutely aware of the changing dynamics and are acting accordingly. There is no doubt that aviation has been and will continue to be a vital component of West Virginia’s future.
 
In the last decade the domestic airlines have consolidated into four main carriers: American, Delta, Southwest, and United Airlines. They have dramatically changed the way they are organized and how and to whom they provide services. Economics have dictated a contraction of the number of flights, the size of the planes and the corresponding expectation of more passenger per flight. The flights that fail to meet enplanement numbers are reduced or eliminated. Charleston’s Yeager Airport clearly illustrates this trend. In 2005, Yeager had 13,115 flights and by 2016 that number had decreased to 5,661. Yet Yeager has been able to maintain and expand its facilities and continue to upgrade the quality of its services by paying close attention to industry trends and the requirements of the dominant carriers. Currently it is investigating a new aircraft maintenance facility, an air flight center and preparing a 25 acre site for future development. But ultimately, any increase in the number of flights offered depends on growing the economy and, like the airlines, becoming more regionally focused.
 
The North Central West Virginia Airport in Bridgeport is in the process of updating its master plan so it can more effectively compete in the next ten years. In an effort to accommodate expected growth, a major expansion of the terminal is in the works to include new gates, jetways, baggage pick-up, and expanded parking. These efforts do not include the activity occurring in the Mid Atlantic Aerospace Complex which is located around the airport. Here Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier, Lockheed, and a host of other aeronautic companies have created an economic engine with a billion dollar economic impact. This complex is located at Bridgeport largely due to the facilities at the airport, not the least of which is the length of the runway and the developable land surrounding it. These past infrastructure investments, somewhat controversial at the time, are now bearing fruit in a significant way and helping the region to meet the future economy head on. In addition the Legislature has been helpful, most recently with the passage of HB 4022 which exempted the repair, remodeling, and maintenance of certain aircraft from the consumer sales, service and use tax.
 
Workforce training for West Virginia’s expanding aerospace industry has been an excellent example of the difference that can be made by planning for and investing in education. A prime example is Pierpont Community & Technical College’s Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center. The training programs at this center have been a big reason for the growth and expansion of the industry located around the North Central Regional Airport. The center will be expanding even further with 1.8 million dollars in grant funds received from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. This is an excellent example of being proactive in enhancing educational programing and facilities needed to help drive the economy forward.
 
The coupling of investment in education and work force training for aviation related opportunities is not limited to north central West Virginia. Charleston and Huntington are also pursuing game changing opportunities with the leadership of Marshall University. The University has proposed the creation of a School of Aviation which would focus on aeronautical sciences, aviation maintenance, training air traffic controllers and pilots, as well as other related fields of study. A memorandum of understanding has been signed between Marshall University and Yeager Airport. Huntington’s Tri-State Airport is also being considered as part of the plan. Marshall is bringing expertise to the table from the Robert C. Byrd Institute of Advanced and Flexible Manufacturing, the Appalachian Transportation Institute, the College of Information Technology and Engineering, and its College of Education and Professional Development. This is a good example of the various components of Marshall University coming together with the airports and developing a program to more closely align the future employment and business opportunities with regional assets currently in place.
 
There is no question that the airports, the educational community, industry and the legislature have been working together to aggressively prepare for the future. However, one area where initiatives have been less successful is in the creation of regional airport authorities. North Central West Virginia has continued to have difficulty formulating a plan that would bring the North Central West Virginia Airport, the Fairmont Municipal Airport, and the Morgantown Municipal Airport under the auspices of a North Central Regional Airport Authority. The same could be said for Charleston’s Yeager Airport and Huntington’s Tri State Airport. Parkersburg may even want to join in the discussion with its Mid-Ohio Valley Airport. The consolidation of the aviation industry has been profound. Yet West Virginia’s airports continue to operate as islands unto themselves. Perhaps it is time to look how regional airport authorities can create efficiencies and savings as well as potentially increase enplanements, flights, and destinations.
 
There is no doubt that aviation is a vital component of West Virginia’s future and growing its economy. The state’s aviation industry has had an excellent track record in adjusting to changing circumstances. Yet more can and should be done. Perhaps regional airport authorities should be added to our “to do” list.
 
Original story here
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