Lehigh Valley Airport Taken to Task for Shortcomings

One person criticized the airport for what he sees as missteps, another complained about the proliferation of smaller planes that hold fewer passengers, while a third said the airport is at a crossroads.

By the looks of things, Tuesday was the day to bring a complaint to the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates Lehigh Valley International Airport.

What's often a ho-hum, 30-minute monthly meeting of awarding a bid for a paving contract became a 90-minute referendum on the airport's direction.

Frustrations from two years of falling passenger volume and revolving discount carriers appeared to come to a head. Last year, LVIA had its lowest passenger volume in more than 10 years.

The people who came to voice their concerns included a tour operator, a retired lobbyist and a councilman. While each had a specific topic, all touched on the airport's declining passenger volume.

Ron Angle, a Northampton County councilman, took the airport to task for allowing Hooters Air to run up a

$1 million fuel bill last year, before ceasing service.

Hooters, which flew to Florida in 2005 and 2006, bought fuel from the airport. LVIA has since filed a lawsuit to force the company, which runs the restaurant chain, to pay its bill.

"I've got to be honest with you. Out in the community, that looked like an unbelievably dumb move," Angle said.

Airport officials didn't defend the Hooters' decision. They said they wrestled with cutting Hooters off because it was behind on its bills, but decided against it because it would have resulted in a disruptive cancellation of the service.

Bob Buesling, who runs East Coast Touring in Easton, attended the meeting to say his company is flying from LVIA less frequently because fewer large planes fly from here.

Buesling said he frequently organizes school trips of 100 people, who can't fit on the 50-seat and 70-seat jets in wide use at LVIA.

The criticisms followed a rare airing of complaints of the airport's performance by board members Tuesday.

Bert Daday, a board member since 1987 who has stepped up criticism in the past month, said the staff should develop a written plan for increasing flights.

The complaints come as elected officials are taking a closer look at the airport. The Lehigh and Northampton County executives have appointed new members to the 19-person board in the hopes that turnover will bring new perspectives and approaches to running the airport.

"Our area is one of rapid expansion industrially, and there's significant population growth, but at the same time we are losing passengers at the airport," Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham said in an interview this month. "I think we need a more comprehensive and aggressive management approach."

Airport officials say there are wider issues in the airline industry that are adversely affecting LVIA. Many of the large airlines have cut flights and substituted smaller planes at regional airports such as LVIA. At the same time, none of the large discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines have touched down here.

The airport will have 40 percent fewer total airline seats available next month, compared with April 2000, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Other airports in Pennsylvania are facing a similar capacity decline. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport will have 38 percent fewer seats next month, compared with April 2000, according to the same report.

"We're dependent on other people making decisions, and market conditions," Doughty said in response to criticisms Tuesday.

Doughty has forecast a 14 percent rise in passengers this year, fueled by increased flights mostly to Florida. He said the airport remains financially sound, despite the high-profile departures of several airlines in recent years.

The board also sat for an impromptu presentation Tuesday by a former lobbyist who urged the authority to sell Queen City Airport in Allentown.

Jay Goldstein of Salisbury Township said the sale would give the airport as much as $30 million, and the city of Allentown could reap tax benefits if a private company redeveloped the parcel. Goldstein, who has offered advice to city officials, said he has identified an ideal new location for Queen City, which he declined to specify.

City officials have long sought to redevelop the 200-acre Queen City property because they say its strategic location near Interstate 78 is attractive to developers. Ed Pawlowski revived the issue in 2005 during his successful bid to become mayor of Allentown.

The Federal Aviation Administration said then it won't approve a proposal to relocate Queen City unless developers first build a comparable replacement.

The airport authority, which has owned Queen City since 2000, has said any proposal to redevelop the property must begin with construction of the replacement airport.

The board took no action Tuesday on air service or the sale of Queen City.

LVIA has about 40 daily nonstop flights to 13 destinations. Last year, 788,511 passengers flew to and from the airport, a 5.2 percent decline from 2005.

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