Dec. 14--Passenger travel is down at the Lehigh Valley International Airport and the large commercial planes that people often associate with big-time airports have in recent years given way to small regional jets and even propeller planes.
LVIA has not turned into the major hub that business leaders envisioned and, for the first time, the Lehigh Valley's two county executives are engaging in a power struggle with airport officials to change policies.
Adding urgency to the brewing battle is a $25 million court ruling against the airport. LVIA's taking of a developer's land has been winding though the courts for 13 years. Now, after spending $2 million on legal fees, the airport is out of appeals, and has no money to pay the award.
Airport Executive Director George F. Doughty -- with support from a majority of his 19-member authority board -- says not only is the airport's transition to smaller planes following a national trend, but it is also holding its own against a challenging economy.
And while the court loss is troubling, it was unavoidable, he contends.
Yet, even if Doughty is right, it's about to get a lot more difficult for him to convince his Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority Board of Governors. Four of his allies up for reappointment will be gone by month's end as Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham and Northampton County Executive John Stoffa look toward change.
"An airport is a critical element in economic development and our local economy, and ours is not cutting it," Cunningham said. "It's not as competitive as it should be. It's time we get more involved."
Doughty acknowledged pressure from the county executives -- whose only control of the airport is through the members they appoint to the authority -- but he chose a different word than "involved."
"I think the word we're looking for is meddle," Doughty said. "We're not picking up trash or running a police department. An airport is a highly technical operation that runs best without political interference. We know what we're doing, whether they realize it or not."
Four board members, including Chairman Glenn Walbert and Vice Chairwoman Linda Rosenfeld, will be replaced with people hand-picked by Cunningham and Stoffa.
When they arrive, they'll be asking Doughty why 250,000 fewer passengers will pass through the gates this year than five years ago, why the number of large planes taking off from the the airport is less than a third of what it was a decade ago, and how the authority board allowed a $10.4 million court-ordered land purchase to turn into a $25 million bill it can't afford.
Lehigh Valley business and political leaders have for years predicted that LVIA's location between New Jersey and Philadelphia would help it become the kind of bustling airport that would help attract Fortune 500 companies to the Valley.
That appeared to be happening when the airport went over 1 million passengers for the first time in 2000. But this year, fewer than 750,000 passengers will fly out of LVIA.
Perhaps more troubling to local leaders is the type of planes they're boarding. What used to be a full schedule of large commercial jets is now a parade of small regional jets and propeller planes -- called air taxis or commuter planes by the Federal Aviation Administration -- with fewer than 60 seats.
In 1997, for every LVIA passenger flying a commuter plane, more than four were boarding a large airliner such as a 727 or 737, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
In 2008, three times as many passengers flew on small commuter planes than large airliners out of LVIA.
"We're in perfect position to be a reliever airport for overcrowded airports in Philadelphia and Newark -- and yet we're not," said David Haines, a Delta Airlines pilot appointed to the board this year. "This airport administration hasn't put a focus on commercial aviation in years. That's got to change."
A committee of the airport's board reconsidered the viability of Lehigh Valley Air, which flew briefly in 2005, as a way of boosting air service at LVIA.
Among complaints are dwindling passenger volume, plane capacity.
Passenger volume crept up 0.5 percent in January to 55,315, compared to the same month in 2005.
The airport authority offered the cash bonuses as part of the contract because the employees will receive wage increases that are below the rate of inflation.