July 31, 2013

Editorial: Aim high with airport decision


---- — There is no question that Plattsburgh International Airport has been climbing a steady staircase to success since it opened. We suggest county legislators head for the top as they consider expansion.

The old Clinton County Airport was seeing off about 2,000 passengers a year before the operation moved to the vacated Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 2007. Legislators figured they had a potential winner on their hands from the start, but the FAA was more conservative, allowing an operation that would accommodate 31,500 passengers a year.

That has proven to be woefully inadequate, and the $40 million terminal built then has time and again demonstrated that it doesn’t have enough ramps for planes or space for people.

When Direct Air folded, its highly popular Plattsburgh flights were over, and pessimists argued that the local airport would falter because of the loss.

But enplanements — airline lingo for the number of people who board flights — are back to enviable levels, according to figures relayed by the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

In March 2011, enplanements for the month set a record at 16,190. Last March, with Direct Air gone, that dropped to 14,994. But in March of this year, with Allegiant destinations expanded, the numbers had not only recovered but set a new record: 17,029.

That is an indication that the strength of Plattsburgh International is bigger than a particular airline. It is a combination of affordable prices, a location convenient to Canadians, direct flights to tourist hot-spots, low parking fees, a well-run operation and a welcoming community.

Clinton County now faces three expansion choices and three prices: Build a terminal big enough to handle the 150,000 people a year who go through now, $40 million; go big enough for moderate growth, $50 million; or aim for larger growth, $60 million.

Legislators seem to have already ruled out the first option. Good decision, as just accommodating the current situation would be extremely shortsighted.

So the question becomes: How big should they dream?

Spending an additional $20 million is supposed to prepare for at least 308,500 enplanements by the year 2030. Could Plattsburgh International be expected to double its enplanements in about 16 years? That will happen only if the airport isn’t impeded by its own structure and infrastructure.

The airport has a history of strong and continuing growth in its first six years. The site is surrounded by ample space for expansion. The runway can handle much bigger aircraft, so the airport may eventually live up to the “international” in its title.

The higher-growth plan would give Plattsburgh International a total of five jet bridges, up to seven ticket counters and 4,000 parking spaces. The hope is that costs will be covered by passenger fees, parking revenue and state and federal grants.

Legislators will be taking a chance on either growth option; they should have the confidence to dream big. On that continuous climb to success, there’s no sense in stepping off early.