SOUTH KINGSTOWN - The Rhode Island Airport Corporation's plan to temporarily close Block Island Airport this fall as it repaves the runway is alarming island residents who say it will cut off critical access to the mainland.
"It's cutting a lifeline for us -- medically," said Millie McGinnes, president of Block Island Health Services.
Islanders rely on New England Airlines -- the island's only regular air service -- for everything from delivering medical prescriptions and Chinese food to hurrying a pregnant woman to the mainland to give birth. On days when the water is too rough for ferries to run, airplanes serve as a critical link to greater Rhode Island.
The Airport Corporation plans to close the airport from Oct. 11 through Nov. 21 to resurface the runway and taxiways and replace lighting. Corporation officials presented the specifics at an informational session Tuesday at Block Island School that was testily received by island residents.
Accelerated by salty sea air, the pavement at the airport "has reached its shelf life," said Patti Goldstein, corporation spokeswoman. She did not have specifics about the runway condition or when work was last done, but said the project would improve airport safety.
Fire Chief Ned S. Connelly and Rescue Capt. Bethanie Rousseau oppose the closure. In a letter to the state agency, they said that they depend on air transportation to evacuate patients. Though the island's year-round population hovers around 1,000, they note that the shoulder season in which the work is planned remains popular for weddings and with second homeowners.
"We cannot deny the possibility of a mass casualty. In this situation, taking air transportation out of our disaster plan leaves everyone at a severe disadvantage," they wrote.
The Airport Corporation responded that life flights will still be available by helicopter and that the Coast Guard maintains responsibility for the region.
Rousseau estimated the helicopter flights -- which come in from Worcester, and Hartford generally to assist in life-threatening situations -- can cost upward of $5,000 and are not always covered by insurance. The Coast Guard responds only when all other resources have been exhausted and can be a time-consuming and physically demanding option for sick or injured patients, island health officials said.
"The airport closure could be a disaster for us," said Dr. Jan Miller, who has worked on the island for the past five years. Without an on-island pharmacy, Miller relies on New England air to deliver 5 to 10 prescriptions a day and take patients off the island often at no cost at odd hours, night or day.
Miller and others asked Tuesday that the Airport Corporation establish an alternate runway while the work was under way.
"I don't want the responsibility of being helpless because they closed that airport," she said.
The corporation asserts that a grass strip cannot be used for landing because it supports sensitive beetle habitat and does not meet Federal Aviation Administration standards for turf landings. The taxiways also cannot be used because of aircraft clearance issues, they said.
Bill Bendokas, owner of New England Airlines, suggested that the work be phased in to allow a portion of the runway to remain open.
"On an island where air service is part of daily life and commerce... you're talking about a community being isolated to an extent not envisioned by the good folks at the Rhode Island Airport Corporation," said Bendokas, who started the airline 35 years ago.
Islanders worry the work will stretch longer than planned because of dicey seas in the fall and other conditions related to living and working on an island. They also raised concerns about the closure forcing New England Airlines out of business.
The old terminal, built in 1961, was decrepit, a dark, moody, outdated building where the baggage claim smelled of the nearby trash area.
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