Tallahassee Regional Airport Receives a 21st-Century Flight Plan

Tallahassee Regional Airport needs a longer runway, expanded baggage service and more gates to handle additional passengers and commercial traffic expected over the next 20 years, airport officials said.

"These are just changes within the existing (facilities) to keep up with the times," Mike Clow, the airport's capital program administrator, said after a public meeting held last week to unveil an updated airport master plan.

The proposed improvements are being driven by studies that show the number of passengers increasing from an estimated 1.2 million this year to 1.6 million in 2023, said Phil Inglese, assistant airport aviation director.

The major expense will be lengthening the airport's north-south runway from 6,000 feet to 8,000 feet, Clow said.

Adding 2,000 feet to the runway will help accommodate more regional jet traffic and give the runway an additional safety factor, Clow said.

Regional jets, which carry from 40 to 70 passengers, require more runway length for takeoffs and landings than some larger jets, Clow said.

The airport's east-west runway already is 8,000 feet long and can accommodate all jet aircraft. Extending the north-south runway would mean both could handle all types of commercial jets that fly into and out of Tallahassee Regional.

Clow projected the cost of the runway extension to be from $7million to $10million, depending on the final configuration.

Also included in the recommendations are adding 10 new gates for boarding and deplaning, adding a third baggage carousel and expanding the baggage service area.

"We could conceivably spend another $50million in the next five years on capital improvements," said Ken Austin, the airport aviation director, who declined to estimate how much might be spent in the 20-year period covered by the master plan.

Austin said because the proposals had not received final approval, he could not specify where or when work would start on the improvements.

Money for most projects on the terminal building will come from the $4.50 fee assessed each passenger who uses the airport.

Taxiway improvement and similar work is paid for 50-50 with the Florida Department of Transportation, and the runway work will be 90-percent paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Expanding services for regional airlines makes good sense, said Phillip Reed, marketing vice president for Pinnacle Airlines, which operates Northwest Airlink, a regional carrier that serves Northwest Airlines.

Inglese said of the approximately 90 commercial flights daily into and out of the airport, all but six are the smaller regional jets.

Reed said weather can affect the number of passengers and the amount of luggage regional jets can carry.

Heat and humidity can reduce the amount of "lift" a regional jet receives as it rolls down the runway, Reed said, meaning it needs more room to take off. Extending the north-south runway to 8,000 feet would mean regional jets could use both runways at any time, he said.

Clow said he was pleased the airport would not have to purchase any land or expand its noise-abatement zone to extend the runway.

Some trees on the south side of Lake Cascade will have to be removed for a "safety zone" required by the FAA at the end of all runways, but the lake will not be disturbed, Clow said.

More passengers also means expanded terminal facilities, he said.

Tallahassee Regional already has taken steps to provide space for cargo and private aircraft. A $1.5million apron for smaller aircraft is near completion, and bids are expected to go out soon for construction of a $7.5million commercial cargo apron on the airport's east side.

Austin said FedEx already will expand its cargo space at the airport from 6,500 square feet to more than 31,000 square feet by building a $3.5million facility adjacent to the new cargo apron.

Austin also said he thought the capital improvements would help the airport take advantage of the improving financial health of regional carriers as they expand into markets not fitted to standard carriers such as Delta or low-cost carriers such as AirTran.

Austin said he saw the airport's importance growing over the next few years, with the area's population expected to increase because of an influx of retiring baby boomers.

Some people think those boomers may be flying into a new $210million airport that's being proposed for Panama City, but Inglese said initial studies show that Tallahassee serves a different market and that competition should be limited.

"Tallahassee is a market that supports intrastate flights, state government and the universities," Inglese said. "Panama City is "predominately a leisure market."

"As long as our service appears to be reasonable, as it is today," he said, "you would not anticipate customers being drawn away from Tallahassee."

The hearing on the master plan at Tallahassee Community College last week was the first step in an 18-month process that includes approval by the airport's advisory committee and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Major master plan recommendations:

Expand the north-south runway and make sure taxi areas complement the expansion.

Increase the size and capacity of baggage claim area and move baggage security checkpoints away from ticket counters.

Add gates for more aircraft and passengers.

Increase parking areas and expand commercial cargo facilities.