Nebraska’s airports would continue to receive the same level of improvement project funding under a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer.
The bipartisan Airport Infrastructure Readiness (AIR) Act would temporarily adjust the funding formula the Federal Aviation Administration uses to distribute Airport Improvement Project (AIP) monies.
For Western Nebraska Regional Airport, a minimum of 10,000 annual airline boardings are required for the airport to receive $1 million in AIP funds. Those funds are used for federally mandated safety upgrades related to aircraft operations. That could include emergency equipment, runway improvements and similar projects.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit the area in March, boarding numbers took a drastic plunge as the public stopped flying from commercial airports across the state.
Fischer’s bill would require FAA to calculate AIP funding for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 based on boarding numbers from 2018 or 2919, rather than 2020 and 2021.
“There’s little hope any airport across the state will reach the 10,000 threshold this year,” Airport Director Raul Aguallo said. “We boarded about 50 people in April then it started to pick up in May with about 140 boardings. We were over 300 in June.”
Aguallo said the numbers are starting to go up again as people are feeling safer about flying. SkyWest, the airport’s air service provider to Denver, is back to a regular schedule of two daily round-trip flights, one on Saturday and two on Sunday.
“The AIR Act is important legislation and I don’t think Congress will have much trouble getting it passed,” Aguallo said. “It will allow us to keep doing our required federal projects for airport safety.”
In a press release, Fischer said the bill gives airports “a clearer sense of the formula funding they can expect to receive for infrastructure over the next couple of years as they manage responding to the pandemic.”
The AIR Act has received strong support from all the state’s commercial airports, from Western Nebraska to North Platte, and Kearney, Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha. All of them have been dealing with the negative impact on aviation caused by the coronavirus.
One of the AIP projects Aguallo said he is more confident about is the complete rehab of the airport’s crosswind runway, 5-23. Because Western Nebraska Regional is a diversionary airport, it gets heavy jets landing on a regular basis. A crosswind runway gives larger planes a safe way to land.
Although diversionary landings have pretty much dried up during the COVID-19 crisis, they’re expected to pick up again once the crisis is passed.
“I think we’re going to get what we want on the runway project,” Aguallo said. “We’ve been asking for some time for the FAA to keep the runway at its current length.”
His request, if approved, would keep the runway at 100 by 7,200 feet.
“We’re optimistic the FAA will approve our proposal,” Aguallo said. “If funding is available, we could start that project sometime next year.”