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

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...


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.

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