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Owensboro airport poised for more growth

By Joy Campbell The Messenger-Inquirer

The Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport has a new terminal, an 8,000-foot runway and two carriers serving the flying public and boardings that exceed 30,000.

And the FAA's air traffic contract control tower has been funded through 2015.

But there's more potential for growth, according to local leaders. And at the same time, the list of priorities for the airport board will include protecting the public investments and retaining both carriers, Allegiant Air and Cape Air.

The airport gets $1 million each year from the FAA for capital improvements if it has more than 10,000 boardings per year. It has surpassed that mark each year since 2009 when Allegiant began offering nonstop flights to and from Orlando, Fla.

The facility got another boost in December 2011 when Cape Air started its Essential Air Service of providing low-cost, federally subsidized flights to and from St. Louis.

The $2.8 million terminal expansion project that was completed in the fall of 2012 included adding 8,500 square feet to the 14,000-square-foot facility and making numerous upgrades, including quadrupling the holding area space where passengers stay after they have cleared security and adding bathroom facilities for that area.

Other recent investments have included: a $600,000 renovation of the control tower by the FAA; completion of the $2.3 million instrument landing system relocation project; and improvements of about $500,000 for two of the airport's fixed-base operators.

"In terms of protecting and retaining, we want to keep our control tower," Airport Director Bob Whitmer said. "And we want to work to keep Cape Air and Allegiant. Allegiant expects 90 to 95 percent capacity on its flights, and we've been hitting that."

Owensboro's control tower is one of several at small- and medium-sized airports that has been in jeopardy of closing as a result of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. But the federal government has approved dedicated funding for the towers through September 2015. The board also knows how quickly it could lose the Allegiant flights to Orlando, so it has nurtured the relationship to keep them, Whitmer said. Allegiant's nonstop flights to Las Vegas were short-lived - about 10 months. The company said demand was not high enough.

The airport assists with a long-term fuel agreement and does the ground-handling so the company has no employees at the terminal, and the location is a plus, he said.

"Owensboro is at the top of the list to receive another Florida destination," Whitmer said.

Funding is just one issue in keeping the control tower.

"That also involves getting more activities on the field," board chairman Ray Assmar said. "I want to promote general aviation with a flight school."

Assmar said there are two paths being pursued toward that goal. MidAmerica Jet is taking the lead on an airline and corporate flight school.

"Another potential flight school is what could be called a mom-and-pop business that would teach the general population to fly," Assmar said. "That's how I started flying. If we could get those schools going at the airport, they would greatly increase our numbers and help in retaining the tower."

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