Dillon sees role for all R.I. airports in expansion plan

Aug. 7, 2009
Cargo carriers encouraged to use Quonset Airport


Aug. 7--Although the proposed runway expansion of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick remains the top priority for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, president Kevin Dillon is looking to maximize benefit of the other five airports that comprise RIAC's network.

In recent interviews and meetings with state business leaders, Dillon has been reiterating his long-term goal to try to get more cargo carriers to use Quonset Airport in North Kingstown.

He stressed that "it's a very preliminary conversation" at this point and "we have no imminent plan to put forward."

Still, Dillon noted, while much public dialogue recently has focused on the expansion at Green (which is pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration), RIAC must continually look at the best use of all its airports.

Quonset would be a good fit for cargo carriers such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service, he said, because it does not have a voluntary midnight curfew like Green and it also has ample space for cargo handling. In addition, he said, the redesign of the highways in the area makes it more accessible than in the past.

Expanding cargo traffic to Quonset would not necessarily mean eliminating Federal Express and UPS flights at Green, he said. It's more a matter that Green is limited in how much growth it has for cargo service since the facility is primarily dedicated to serving passenger planes, Dillon said.

There is no timeline, he said, and only very preliminary discussion with some cargo carriers.

Dillon has put forth a number of ideas since taking over as president and chief executive officer of RIAC early in 2008. When he took the job there were a couple of runway expansion options in the works for Green -- all of which would have extended the runway to the north. Dillon broached the idea to expand south toward Main Avenue, a move he said would minimize the impact on local homes and businesses.

That option was recently selected as the preferred option by the FAA, which is in the process of drafting an environmental impact report.

In recent months, Dillon has been meeting with neighborhood groups throughout Warwick to explain the need for the runway expansion, and often at such sessions he has raised the idea of trying to draw more cargo traffic to Quonset. At a May meeting with residents from Warwick's Oakland Beach area, Dillon noted that Quonset, which already handles military flights, would be appropriate for cargo carriers.

In addition to Green and Quonset, RIAC is also responsible for smaller airports in Smithfield, Middletown, Westerly and Block Island.

Although the cargo flights nationwide have declined in the past year because of the economy, Dillon said Thursday that a look at comparable airports in New England shows that there is room for growth of the industry in Rhode Island.

He noted that Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, which he used to run, handled about 200 million pounds of cargo last year, as compared with about 30 million pounds at Green.

"There's an opportunity here for us," he said. "We have good manufacturers and a good transportation system." He also said that the air cargo industry would bring more jobs to the state.

Anything that involves more jobs wins a predictably favorable response from the business community, he said.

At least one person, however, has some questions.

North Kingstown Town Manger Michael Embury said that he is in the process of writing to Dillon since the airport chief has not talked to the town at all about his Quonset idea.

"I realize we probably won't have any jurisdiction at all over it," Embury said. "But I heard about it on the news and haven't heard at all from Kevin Dillon. I'd like to see if there's a proposal or anything -- it would be nice to know some of the details first hand."

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