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...

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.

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