The Port of Pasco spent $1.6 million this week to make sure that bigger airplanes someday will be able to land at the Tri-Cities Airport.
Port commissioners unanimously agreed to buy 34 acres from E.E. Properties so they can expand a main runway if they need to.
The port already has enough land to lengthen one of the airport's two runways, said Ron Foraker, Tri-Cities Airport director.
But buying the vacant 34 acres will protect the approach to the runway, preventing houses from being built there, Foraker said. Housing in that area would limit what the airport could do, he said.
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Preserving the option to extend the runway to serve larger planes is important as the Tri-Cities population and air travel continues to grow, said Randy Hayden, the port's director of planning and engineering.
It's part of the port's "once in a generation expansion efforts" for an airport that has seen annual boardings grow by 100,000 in the last four years.
For most of 2012, the airport continued to see a 3 percent increase in boardings, Foraker said. December numbers were not available as of Wednesday.
A $1 million loan from the Hanford Area Economic Investment Fund Committee is helping pay for the land, Hayden said. The loan is for 15 years, at a 3 percent interest rate.
Port officials hope the Federal Aviation Administration will reimburse them for the cost of the land once the runway extension becomes necessary.
When that will happen will depend on what type of planes the airlines decide to buy and fly in and out of Pasco in the future, Foraker said.
The FAA will not consider a runway extension until an airport already has the airplane size and operations to support that need, he said.
The largest airplanes currently flying in and out of the Tri-Cities are the MD 83s used by Allegiant Air, Foraker said. They carry 166 passengers.
While larger planes such as the Boeing 757 can land on the current runway, extending the runway would better support bigger planes, Foraker said.
Allegiant currently uses 757s to fly directly from the Spokane and Boise airports to Hawaii. Those planes have room for about 225 passengers.
An estimated $26 million to $32 million expansion and remodeling of the Tri-Cities Airport terminal building already is in the works.
The project is in the conceptual design phase and could double the current terminal.
The final conceptual design is expected to be presented at the Jan. 10 port commission meeting, Foraker said.
As part of the remodel, the bathrooms, elevators and stairwell would be moved to the front of the terminal building. That would open up the floor of the terminal to accommodate up to five screening lines.
Part of the front of the building would move back, allowing for three lanes of traffic through the drop-off area.
The ticket counters would be moved back, and the building would be expanded behind the ticket counters for baggage check and security screening.
Behind the screening, there would be space for a restaurant, with boarding gates to the left and right. The terminal could have up to five gates, and with easy modifications, up to seven.
The earliest construction likely would be to begin in 2014, Foraker said. The project likely is to be built in phases, and the airport would remain open during construction.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com