Longer Runway May Bring More Business, Not Bigger Planes, to Butler County Airport

Jerry Kennihan is flying high, and not just in the cockpit of his Cirrus SR22.

As the owner of AirQuest Aviation, the operator at the Butler County Airport, Mr. Kennihan is feeling good about the future, he said, as the airport prepares to finish the long-planned and bitterly embattled extension to its runway.

Mr. Kennihan is expanding his fleet so he'll be positioned to serve what he expects to be a growing number of corporate clients after the 4,005-foot runway is extended by 800 feet this year -- largely for safety reasons.

He's not alone in his predictions that business at the 77-year-old airport is about to take off.

"Butler County Airport is positioned well for the future,'' said Sara Walfoort, an aviation expert with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the region's transportation planning agency.

A former aviation planning consultant and employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, Ms. Walfoort keeps a close eye on the aviation industry in the region. The runway extension couldn't be coming at a better time, she said.

Though no one could have predicted it a decade ago when the Butler County Airport Authority board began contemplating a runway extension, the dynamics of air travel in the Pittsburgh region have changed because of the one-two punch of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and USAirways' financial troubles.

The double whammy has taken its toll on the traveling public in terms of time, with longer security checks and more connecting flights.

And, as the adage goes, time is money.

"In the corporate community, there's a high value put on time,'' said Ms. Walfoort, noting that the biggest business at Butler County Airport is of the corporate variety.

Don Bailey, airport manager, said the extension will lengthen the runway to the maximum that can fit on the 309-acre complex about 10 miles south of Butler off Route 8 in Penn.

"There are space constrictions on both sides,'' he said. Under construction since April, the $4.5 million extension is about 70 percent complete and is expected to be finished by July.

"Having a longer runway will allow the airport to be the most versatile that it can be,'' Ms. Walfoort said.

While she and others are hesitant to make predictions, Ms. Walfoort said she believes the runway extension will lure more aircraft to the airport, though the planes won't be any bigger than the ones that use the facility now.

"A 4,800-foot runway doesn't allow for bigger aircraft, but it's safer for the type of aircraft that is using it now. This extension will allow corporate aviation to occur on a more meaningful level because of the safety improvement,'' she said.

She said that regional airports with runways of about 5,000 feet have seen increases in corporate rental and charter flights in recent years because of delays at larger airports and decreases in direct flight options.

"I can't prove it but, anecdotally, I believe the runway extension opens the door to economic opportunity,'' Ms. Walfoort said.

She gave the following example:

"There's no longer a direct flight on [USAirways] from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee. Now, a corporate executive has to fly into Chicago and drive 90 minutes to two hours to meet with a Milwaukee-based business or catch a connecting flight, which presents its own challenges. That means I can't fly out and back in a day. That's expensive, and I'm not just talking about the cost of lodging and meals. It's the cost of not being able to be someplace else, conducting other business."

Charter aircraft doesn't entail two-hour security lines, connecting flights or long drives. "A regional airport like Butler can offer such efficiency,'' Ms. Walfoort said.

Mr. Bailey said traffic is healthy and fairly steady at about 6,100 flights annually but the airport hasn't yet seen an increase in corporate charter flying. He hopes that after the runway is extended, the business community will feel safer and more interest will be piqued, boosting business.

The 4,000-foot runway for years has limited traffic to smaller planes, and an 800-foot extension won't change that. But the longer runway will allow the planes that currently use the site to fly with full gasoline tanks and a full roster of passengers, which isn't always the case, especially when weather conditions are less than ideal.

"There are some companies that will have more of a comfort level with us when the runway is longer,'' Mr. Bailey said.

Ms. Walfoort agreed.

"A longer runway allows longer flights or fuller flights and that's economic efficiency,'' Ms. Walfoort said, noting that nearly every airport in Western Pennsylvania is working toward a longer runway, including Rock Airport in West Deer and Connellsville Airport in Fayette County. "If you don't have the maximum possible runway, you're not a player," she said.

For Mr. Bailey, though, the extension project is about safety at the airport, which serves as base to up to 130 aircraft.

"If the runway is [wet from rain, snow or sleet], we have to restrict use of aircraft because of the weather conditions. If a plane needs 4,000 feet for takeoff at a particular weight on a good day, they'd have to cut their loads [if the runway is wet], leave people behind and go without a full tank,'' Mr. Bailey explained.

A longer runway offers more room for maneuvering in an emergency. "Generally, longer runways are safer runways,'' he said.

Mr. Bailey said some neighbors of the airport had fought the extension, believing a longer runway would mean bigger airplanes would use the airport. "That's just not going to happen,'' he said. Most of the aircraft using the airport carry three to eight passengers.

Dick May, who lives beside the airport and has been a member of the Airport Authority board for four decades, said he favored the extension from the beginning.

"I think a lot of people thought 747 jets were going to come in and we would be like Pittsburgh International. I knew that would never happen. This airport is about corporate aviation, and we need a quality and safe airport for that purpose,'' he said.

Ms. Walfoort said the "magic number" in the aviation world is 5,000 feet for a runway to lure bigger planes. Pittsburgh International's runways exceed 10,000 feet.

Mr. Bailey said his airport has had its share of runway accidents in his 16-year tenure and he believes a longer runway would reduce the rate. He said about a year ago, an airplane landed "fast and hot and ran off the end of the runway. If it was longer, who knows?" No one was hurt.

About eight years ago, a plane landed in a snow squall and the wing hit the ground. The pilot was hurt and died 30 days later.

He said he believes a safer runway will translate to steady, though possibly slow, increases in air traffic. "I can't put a quantitative sum on it. I don't think the day we open, we'll have 1,000 more aircraft per month. But I do think we'll see an additional one or two a day to start. We'll have to wait and see,'' he said, noting that he is aware some corporations have been reluctant to use his airport because they have their own rules for runway length.

"Some corporate executive might say, 'We're not using a runway that's less than 4,500-feet,' " he explained.

Mr. Kennihan, AirQuest owner, is banking on bigger business.

As the fixed-base operator of the airport, the company operates a flight school, a charter service air taxi, a maintenance facility and the fueling and parking services for aircraft.

Mr. Kennihan has owned the company for two years. It employs 26.

Some corporations have their own planes at the airport; some retain Mr. Kennihan for his charter service.

Mr. Kennihan provides regular on-demand charter service and air taxi. On-demand charter generally refers to a group of seven or eight executives who decide on a Friday that they need to be in Nashville on a Monday, for example. They would pay a lot to buy airline tickets and the trip would take longer. Mr. Kennihan can be retained at similar cost but at greater convenience. "They can be home with their families that evening, not staying overnight at another hotel. They don't have to get up two hours earlier to be at Pittsburgh International for a long security check. I check for security issues, but it doesn't take as long for me,'' he explained.

Air taxi is a new concept and one that Mr. Kennihan is hoping to capitalize on in a big way. The idea is to use small aircraft more frequently.

"It used to be that companies were nervous with smaller airplanes and single engines. Companies wanted to use two-engine aircraft,'' he said. Enter the Cirrus SR22, which has a single engine and seats four but is equipped with parachutes that can be released to bring the plane to ground should an emergency arise with the single engine.

Mr. Kennihan said he believes the safety measure may give a company the peace of mind to book a charter on the smaller plane for two or three people and less money. "It's not as expensive as flying [an eight-seater aircraft]," he said.

"The runway being extended gives us a solid platform to build from,'' he said.

And he has big plans: Currently in Mr. Kennihan's fleet are two eight-passenger King Air 200s; a cabin-class twin Navajo that can seat six; and five Cirrus Design SR22, which seat three passengers. He also owns about a dozen flight school planes that are not used for charter or air taxi service.

He plans to buy about 20 more Cirrus SR22s over the next two years. "This is the future!'' he said.

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