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Regional airport progress aired at forum

Talk of a regional airport to serve most of West Virginia, southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky began in 1989 when then-West Virginia State Sen. Ned Jones wrote legislation seeking federal monies and official support for the idea.

Last night, West Virginia officials were at Ohio University Southern to give a status report to interested people.

"We're here to update, to listen to any concerns you have, and to go from there," said Lowell Johnson, with the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

Johnson said that concerns from Lawrence County residents are a factor in the future of the airport because the facility will serve southern Ohio travelers as well as their West Virginia neighbors.

"We are bound together as a region," Johnson said. "The airport site is about 45 minutes from downtown Ironton."

Johnson said a master plan for the regional airport project was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in March. Since then,

the FAA has begun reviewing a Benefit Cost Analysis of the proposed airport. The FAA will make suggestions and the port authority will then make any changes necessary to that document before proceeding with an Environmental Impact Study.

"The FAA has already agreed we could start on that study early next year," Johnson said.

Johnson told the small assembly that the regional airport is the key to economic development for the region.

"It's too bad we didn't build this in the 60s when we had the opportunity." Johnson said."Look at the Appalachian region. All the other regions that have built a regional airport are booming -- eastern Tennessee, Huntsville, Ala., Something is missing for economic development here, and that something is major air service. We don't have it."

Those who attended the forum agreed.

"We do support the idea of a regional airport," Greater Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patricia Clonch said. "I'm aware that a regional airport would be good for The Point industrial park. Without a regional airport, we cannot hope to compete with other areas."

"The one thing that holds us back is the lack of a regional airport," former Ohio University Southern Dean Bill Dingus said.

Dingus lamented that more people did not show their support for the idea by attending the forum.

Those who support the concept of a regional airport are eager for the jobs they feel will follow in the path of the airport construction.

"I believe it will bring 3,000 to 5,000 construction jobs alone," Johnson said. "There will be 1,500 new jobs at the airport once it is completed. Then, there are any number of indirect jobs as companies and businesses locate in that area."

"I can't guarantee we're going to attract a major air carrier or cargo operators if we build the airport," West Virginia Port Authority Executive Director Bill Jackson said. "But I can guarantee if you don't build, they never will come."

Jones, one of West Virginia's most vocal supporters of the regional airport concept, said another thought fuels his desire to see the facility become a reality -- safety.

He pointed out that while Yeager Airport in Charleston is safe, its margins of safety are so tight they don't allow much room for error.

"Yeager's runway is only about 6,300 feet long," Jones said. "According to FAA safety standards, a runway should be 9,400 feet long. People may not realize that Yeager's runway overruns do not meet the 1,000 feet at each end recommended by the FAA. One end of Yeager's runway overrun is only 200 feet. At the other end it's only 130 feet. The overruns at this new airport will be at least 1,000 feet."

Jones pointed out that Yeager's runway problems can't be easily fixed, if they can be fixed at all. The airport is surrounded by hills dotted by homes and businesses. The runway can not be lengthened, he said.

Jones also pointed out that because of the hills around Yeager are higher than the runway, planes on the main runway have to climb at a minimum rate of 375 feet per nautical mile. This is 85 percent steeper than the FAA's standard airplane climb of 200 feet per nautical mile. The new regional airport will meet all FAA safety standards, he said.

Jones said that while many Yeager supporters discount the notion that a regional airport would boost the area's economy, they cannot dispute that a new facility would have wider safety margins than the one in Charleston.

"You can argue all day long about jobs, but to me the safety issues are the most compelling," Jones said.

The airport would be built on 3,400 acres of vacant land in Lincoln County.