Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 2, 2013

Airport could lose millions meant for runway expansion

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — An attempt by Congress to eliminate furloughs for air traffic controllers could cost Cherry Capital Airport up to $2.65 million.

Congress recently passed legislation to allow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to transfer $253 million among Federal Aviation Administration accounts to prevent the closure of 149 small airport towers, as well as end furloughs of air traffic controllers nationwide. The closings and furloughs were a result of the $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that took effect in March and became known as the federal sequester.

Pressure from the airlines industry prompted the legislation that added funding to small airports. Industry officials worried about their business being disrupted by air traffic furloughs, coupled with public outrage from travelers who were forced to endure delays.

“They are trying to solve the immediate crisis in delays, but I don’t think they realize how it will cause problems long-term,” said Kevin Klein, director of Cherry Capital Airport

Transportation department officials have not yet announced how they will use the flexibility provided in the legislation, but Klein said cuts to airport improvement funds are expected to provide a portion of the funding. Delaying or undercutting those projects will have long-term consequences for air travelers, he said.

The legislation puts at risk funding for $5 million to lengthen of Cherry Capital’s main runway. The project would allow commercial jets that use the airport to carry full passenger loads in the summer. The warmer, lighter air of summer provides less lift for the jets so they need more runway, and airlines currently compensate by carrying up to 14 fewer passengers.

The airport commission awarded a $2.95 million paving contract on Tuesday, despite the uncertainty of federal funding. Klein said this is the last phase of the project and the airport commission can dip into its $4 million reserve fund if it loses federal grants that are expected to pay up to 90 percent of the project’s costs.

Money for the federal airport improvement fund comes from ticket taxes, and each airport is entitled to a percentage of funds they generate for their own projects. Federal law had always protected those funds from raids for other uses until now, Klein said.

“It will be interesting to see where we fall in this,” Klein said. “Hopefully we’ll be protected, but it’s up in the air.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.