May 21--PITTSTON TWP. -- It takes a minute or so to walk from the decades-old terminal at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport to the soon-to-be-open replacement named after former U.S. Rep. Joseph M. McDade, but the two might as well be centuries apart.
The $41.5 million glass and steel structure has been three years in the making and years more in the planning and stands as the centerpiece of the nearly complete $80 million expansion.
The new 130,000-square foot terminal dwarfs the existing one originally built in 1959 and added on to over the years. It also outclasses it in amenities and passenger services.
Travelers arriving to board the maiden flight Thursday morning could easily believe they are still in bed dreaming when they walk through the doors for the first time.
The terminal features high ceilings and skylights, a spacious concourse, a 100-seat bar/restaurant, and modern baggage-handling and security equipment. Travelers can pause in the meditation room and frequent fliers can retreat to the exclusive Pocono Club & Business Center to relax or catch up on work.
The initial response has been positive, said Barry Centini, airport director.
"The consensus there is it brings the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport and this area into the 21st century.
"It's a modern, brand new facility that's going to be an asset to this area, bringing in new business hopefully, and then hopefully more airlines to service."
The airport has struggled recently through ups and downs with passenger numbers and revenues as travelers seeking lower fares drive to larger airports such as those in Allentown or Philadelphia.
The latest financial report showed the airport lost $44,117 in April. In the longer term, it expects to lose money this year.
The five airlines that serve the airport -- US Airways, United, Continental, Northwest and Delta -- will move from the smaller terminal into the larger one. They have not added flights for the move or indicated they will bring in larger main-line planes to replace the 50- to 70-seat regional jets and turboprop commuter planes flying in and out now.
As it is christening the terminal, the airport is again looking for a low-cost carrier, having seen two others leave because or internal financial problems.
The monthly passenger figures reflect that loss of service. In April, the most recent available airport data, the boardings dropped by 13.4 percent.
Last year, the airport reported 221,348 passenger boardings, nearly matching pre-9/11 numbers. Centini has acknowledged that without additional service, it's unlikely it will surpass the 2005 total.
No doubt there are uncertainties facing the airport as it enters a new era, but one of them will not be where to find the money to pay for the terminal and other projects in the expansion.
The airport has not taken on any additional debt for the construction of the terminal, the parking garage and surface lots, the roadway network and the aircraft parking apron at the rear of the terminal.
Most of the funding has come in the form of federal grants through the Federal Aviation Administration. The remainder of the funding pool is filled with money from the state, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, and the airport itself through the $4.50 passenger facility charge assessed each boarding passengers.
The charge can be used to fund airport improvement projects, but not cover day-to-day operations costs.
Other airports have taken out bonds for construction projects. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has not, but the counties each are paying their share from previously issued bonds that cover a wide array of government services.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's assembling of funds impressed Fred Testa, aviation director at Harrisburg International Airport.
He oversaw the $240 million refurbishing at Harrisburg and, before that, an expansion of the airport in Manchester, N.H. In between the two jobs, he ran the Philadelphia International Airport.
"Wilkes-Barre, they did it differently than we did," Testa said. The airport "built the garage and paid cash, built the terminal and paid cash. â€¦ We went out and borrowed money upfront."
Most airports finance their construction projects over a period of years, he explained.
By not borrowing Wilkes-Barre/Scranton probably saved twice as much as the estimated $80 million cost, Testa said. "Barry did it like a lot of us would like to do it."
With the funding out of the way, finishing the new terminal is the next hurdle.
Ideally, the airport director is relying on everybody to deliver a 100 percent complete reliable product, Testa said.
But most likely, construction workers will still be on the job opening day. And that's not unusual for a project of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's size.
Harrisburg opened on Aug. 29, 2004, Testa said. "For about six months there were a lot of things that had to be finished."
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Jerry Lynott, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7237.