Regional airport talks continue

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 14, 2008

DEMOPOLIS &8212; After reports on the possibility of a regional airport for West Central Alabama last week, some in the Demopolis community are concerned an additional airport in the area would compete with the city&8217;s own airport.

Buzz Sawyer, who oversees the airport&8217;s operations, sees his airport as a kind of first impression for those who visit the city via aircraft.

While most of their flights are from smaller, single-engine private planes, Sawyer said they can also accommodate jets on their 5,000-foot runway. Last year, they serviced 325 jets, Sawyer said.

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After being designated by the state as a regional airport three years ago, Sawyer said he has continued to upgrade the airport&8217;s facilities by installing a modern lighting system, obtaining a state-of-the-art weather tracking system and building additional hangars to accommodate more planes.

But not all airports in this area of the state have fared so well.

John Eagerton, chief of the Aeronautics Bureau of the Alabama Department of Transportation, is responsible for inspecting each one of the state&8217;s 78 general aviation airports and six commercial use airports.

Four airports that are being considered for consolidation into one regional airport – Linden Municipal Airport, Pine Hill Municipal Airport, Grove Hill Municipal Airport and Butler-Choctaw County Municipal Airport &8212; are among the group of airports Eagerton said have not been kept in operating condition.

According to the most recent inspection reports, which were performed between July and November 2007, both the Pine Hill and Grove Hill Airports were cited as not meeting requirements to obtain a license to operate the airport. The Butler-Choctaw County Municipal Airport was determined to be operational for daytime use only, with faulty lighting prohibiting them from nighttime operations.

The Linden Municipal Airport was not inspected for 2007, because the airport has been closed because it is not in licensable condition.

Eagerton said the conditions of these smaller airports is not surprising, due to the fact smaller communities often find it hard to find the finances to sustain such an operation.

With this in mind, Eagerton said he began to explore the idea that if some of these smaller communities could combine their resources into one airport, there might be a better outcome.

His department had also recently completed a survey to determine which areas of the state needed the most attention, noting this area as one that could benefit from the creation of another regional airport.

After holding a series of informal meetings to discuss a regional airport, a group of representatives from Clarke, Choctaw, Marengo and Wilcox counties met last week to begin the process of conducting a feasibility study for such a project.

Eagerton said the goal in looking into an airport in this area is to establish an airport so that travelers can be within 30 minutes of their destination and also as part of the state&8217;s larger strategic plan. With a regional airport in Demopolis and a regional airport in Jackson, this new airport would service the areas in between the two existing regional airports.

If the study determines a need for such an airport, a grant with the Federal Aviation Administration will fund 95 percent of the project and the state will fund 2.5 percent. The remaining cost to the participating municipalities would be approximately $250,000.

Garver Engineers from Huntsville is responsible for conducting the study by looking at each of the existing airports to see any of them are suitable to be converted into a larger facility to accommodate all four airports. They will also be looking at other potential sites for the airport to be constructed.

By February 2009, the firm will have a potential list of sites and their findings from the study. Ultimately, however, the representatives of the four counties will be the group to determine the site of the airport, if they decide to go through with the project.