Tri-Cities Airport logs high boarding numbers in 2013

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 25, 2014 

The Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco had its second-best year ever in 2013 despite federal budget cuts, fewer flights and fog.

The airport logged about 326,700 boardings, just 1 percent fewer than the record set in the previous year.

The drop in boardings does break a long streak of rapidly growing use. Since 2008, total boardings have risen by 100,000.

The growth caused the Transportation Security Administration to add about 20 employees and a second security line in 2012. That year, the airport had about 331,300 boardings.

Still, the usage remains high enough to keep the second security line and to pay for the planned $43.5 million terminal remodel, said Ron Foraker, the airport's director.

Automatic federal budget cuts called sequestration limited government travel during the spring of 2013, causing boardings to trail the previous year by about 4 percent until the summer, Foraker said.

Then in the fall, the flight schedule varied, with fewer flights offered to some destinations, Foraker said.

Fog the last weekend in December kept about 35 flights from taking off and landing, Foraker said. He estimates the airport lost out on more than 2,000 boardings from canceled flights.

Still, the airport ended the year on a high note, with 29,300 boardings in December -- up 6 percent from the year before, Foraker said.

Also on the positive side, TSA continues to man the doorway between the unscreened area of the airport terminal and the secured waiting area with its own employees, Foraker said.

TSA officials had planned to turn that responsibility over to local management at about 140 airports across the country starting Jan. 1, but the decision was appealed at the national level, giving airports at least two more years before the possibility is revisited, Foraker said.

The airport could handle manning the doorway itself and would not need to hire additional security personnel, Foraker said. However, employees assigned to that duty wouldn't have as much freedom to move around within the facility.

Port of Pasco officials will finalize plans for the airport remodel in the next few months, with construction expected to begin in July.

The airport is high on the list to receive an $8 million Federal Aviation Administration grant for the project. Officials do not know exactly when that decision will be made.

But Randy Hayden, the Port of Pasco's executive director, told port commissioners recently that they can still afford the project even if the grant does not come through.

Officials plan to keep the airport open during construction, Foraker said. Passengers may end up using a temporary baggage claim area or temporary airline counters while different parts of the building are remodeled.

"The community is really on board with this," Foraker said. "They know we need to expand. They know there will be times where it's going to be uncomfortable."

The construction project will almost double the size of the terminal. The staircase and restrooms will be moved to the front of the terminal building to open up the area near the security checkpoint. Security, ticketing and baggage areas also would be expanded. A new concourse beyond the security area would feature a view of the airfield, with gates to the right and left.

By the end of the summer, the FAA will have moved the FAA-owned VOR -- Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range radio beacon -- which is used for navigation. It is in the way of the planned concourse expansion.

The cost to move the equipment is about $4.6 million. The FAA will reimburse the port for 90 percent of the cost. The $450,000 the port is responsible for will be paid from airport revenues, port officials have said.

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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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