Lynchburg moves forward with planning for independent airport authority

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7)-- Lynchburg City Council is moving forward with a recommendation from staff to allow for the creation of an independent airport authority.

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At a Tuesday afternoon work session, council members gave the Lynchburg Regional Airport Commission permission to take any necessary steps in creating a specific plan for forming an airport authority.

According to Mark Courtney, outgoing airport director, an independent airport authority would allow the airport to be more competitive.

“It allows us to compete better against the independent airport authorities that are competing for more of that service,” said Courtney.

The airport is overseen by the City of Lynchburg and is considered a city department, similar to the Office of Economic Development. It responds to the city manager, city council and any necessary committees. It is the only airport that still operates this way in Virginia.

“We need to react quickly and you can’t do that in a city-type governance model that is that large,” said Courtney.

An independent airport authority would be a separate body comprised of representatives from whichever localities that would like to be involved. According to Courtney, it is not a new idea. Airport authorities are the trend in similar-sized airports across the nation and it has been a goal of Courtney’s for the last 20 years. In 2007, legislation needed to form the Region 2000 independent airport authority was even passed in the general assembly.

However, service loss, a declining economy and struggling airlines kept the airport from moving forward with the authority. Now that the airline industry has recovered, Courtney said it is a good time. Ridership at the airport is up and the airport is offering 25 percent more flights than at this time last year.

At the same time, 70 percent of local potential customers are still deciding to drive to other airports. Courtney said it is important that improvements continue.

“More efficiently and more effectively, yes,” said Courtney. “As an independent airport authority, you can be more nimble, you can be more aggressive and you can provide more incentives.”

The commission hired a consultant to outline the benefits of forming an independent airport authority. The benefits included continued economic impact and potentially more flights. According to the consultant, airlines are more eager to work with authority-run airports which can function as small businesses rather than a branch of local government. The consultant did not outline any negative impacts.

“If this is going to help us attract air service development, then let's do it,” said Bonnie Svrcek, City Manager for the City of Lynchburg, stressing there are no guarantees.

She said the change would not have a noticeable operational impact on the city. Svrcek added the devil will be in the details moving forward surrounding how the authority is created and who is involved. She said council members voiced in the Tuesday meeting that they want to be strategic and avoid any “unintended consequences.”

“I think putting together the governing documents for an authority needs to be done very deliberately and carefully," said Svrcek.

If the city approves the plan, any changes are still a year to two years away. Legislation might have to be tweaked, local governments would have to indicate their willingness to participate; members would then be appointed and governing documents would have to be drawn.

The airport commission is expected to present its plan to city council members in January. While nothing is definite, Courtney called Tuesday night’s decision a meaningful step forward.

“We are a regional asset and, as such, we need to make sure that we are able to provide the best possible air service and the best possible airport facilities,” said Courtney.

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