On the fly

Think about it: If you were the director of a regional airport, and you had a major construction project on your hands — say, a multimillion-dollar, multilevel parking deck — and you knew that the window of opportunity for getting the project done was several months less than the time it was estimated to take, would you forge ahead anyway? Would you shut your eyes, put the pedal to the metal, and just hope everything worked out for the best?

Probably not. There are just too many things that could go wrong. At least, that’s the conclusion Mike Armour, the Asheville Regional Airport’s new director, reached recently: To keep worse from coming to worst, he postponed starting construction of a 530-space parking deck from Oct. 1 to sometime in the first or second quarter of 1999.

“There are too many outstanding issues involved,” Armour explains. Most of them are operational, he notes, such as trying to work out a parking deal with the WNC Agricultural Center down the road, and developing a shuttle service to get passengers back and forth. But with the Ag Center hosting the N.C. Mountain State Fair each September, Armour decided he just couldn’t gamble that everything would go smoothly. “The Agricultural Center is an ideal place [to park], but we’re looking at a 12- to 14-month construction cycle,” he says, which would directly conflict with next year’s Mountain State Fair.

Already, during peak periods, the 764 spaces in the short- and long-term public parking augmenting the 202-space employee parking lot is used as a sort of overflow area (which requires employees to park in scattered airport lots). The airport is considering creating another, temporary lot on airport property.

But with winter coming on — traditionally a slow season for the airport — Armour decided he would rather spend another year dealing with the parking problem than start something he couldn’t finish.

And just how does the Airport Authority plan to raise the $8 million needed to build the parking lot? It doesn’t necessarily have to, says Armour — the Authority has more than that much in a capital improvements account right now and will probably raise parking rates to supplement those funds. The new rates, he cautions, aren’t finalized yet, but some adjustments will definitely be made. “We’re in the process of determining where those parking rates need to be. We want to entice people to utilize the facility, but we don’t want to charge people $12 a day. We’re very mindful of those cost issues to customers. That might be the factor that somebody uses to go somewhere else.”

A multilevel parking deck was recommended two years ago, in a parking study conducted by the HNTB Corporation, a Charlotte consulting firm. Based on historic rates of increase in airport use, HNTB concluded that the airport needed to add at least 525 spaces over the next 20 years. Using an annual-growth estimate of 1.9 percent, the study predicted a shortfall of at least 197 spaces by the year 2000.

And in the past year, that admittedly conservative estimate has proven drastically low: Airport use has increased 6.4 percent over the same period last year, with an unusually high 265,000 enplanements — up from 248,000 enplanements last year, according to airport figures.

Armour’s not worried that the airport will be overwhelmed with an unforeseen explosion in business, though. “We’ve been fortunate,” he says, “but you have to take into consideration that the economy is good right now. We don’t want to get too excited, because we know the economy is on a cycle; history tells us that it’s not always going to be this good. All we can do is plan for an expected rate of growth.”

With a fiscal (and physical) entity as ponderous as a regional airport, either over- or underestimating growth, Armour notes, can leave passengers and air carriers unhappy. “When you forecast the rate of growth,” he explains, “you try to approach it in a scientific, statistically sound, calculated way. Very rarely, of course, does it ever work that way. But when something as important to your [regional] economic development as the airport gets off track, then you need to be able to react to that. We’ve been fortunate to have the growth rates we’ve had, but the real question is whether or not we can sustain it. I’d like to think that we could, but to do that, we’d have to [position] that airport in such a way that, when those opportunities come along, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of them.”

Calm skies ahead

When it comes to the airport’s future, though, Armour is all smiles. Even though he’s been busy just getting to know the place — he only replaced outgoing director Jim Parker in July — Armour already sees the airport’s untapped potential.

He’s been particularly interested in the Farewatch program, an initiative begun 18 months ago to ensure that customers don’t wind up paying a hefty premium for the convenience of using the Asheville Airport. Farewatch data show that the average Asheville Airport fare to the top-10 destinations has been running $63 higher than comparable departures from Greenville/Spartanburg’s airport. Since Farewatch began, Armour says the Authority has worked closely with various airlines to get them to upgrade Asheville’s status.

“Since then, fares have only been $20 higher, on average,” Armour boasts. “If a fare is extremely out of line, we’ll go back to the carriers and try to work with them, and they’re working with us.”

Other plans are a little less defined. He wants to take a good look at the airport’s master plan, a 20-year strategy that lays out short-term, intermediate and long-term development goals, and bring it more in line with the airport’s current status. His primary concern will be continuing the airport’s overall development, with an emphasis on land acquisition.

“It’s my belief that the most valuable asset an airport can have is land available to develop,” Armour argues. “Of course, the development has to be consistent and compatible with the airport. But we’re landlocked on the east side, with the highway; and on the west, we can’t go very much farther, because of the river; so we have some natural geographical areas that we need to take a look at, and find a way to preserve that for the future. One of the requirements for an airport is to have a nice, flat piece of land to put your airfield infrastructure [on], and I’ve discovered, since I’ve come to Asheville, that flat land is at a premium.”

But with western N.C.’s population booming, it makes sense to prepare for an explosion in air traffic, right? Not necessarily, says Armour: He’s adamant that the airport should expand only as quickly as it needs to. “There’s only a finite amount of resources that we have,” he cautions, “so you want to make sure you use them wisely. If you think parking is bad now, if a low-fare carrier would come in here, we wouldn’t be prepared for it.”

The real challenge, Armour maintains, is to keep the airport positioned to take advantage of whatever happy surprises come along, while sustaining a slow, steady growth. That’s why the Authority is not actively courting any new carriers right now; the director would rather let the airport’s stability and success speak for themselves.

“We have had some discussions [with certain carriers],” he admits, “and we’ve worked very closely with the Transportation Task Force at the Chamber of Commerce. We’re looking at doing some airline visits to shore up our relationships, to make sure all is well with our existing carriers. And when we feel it’s appropriate, we’ll go and seek other carriers. But by planning for a slow, conservative, steady path, that gives us time to plan for the next step to raise our level of service.”

But Armour has no problem with the fact that the Asheville Regional Airport will forever be a second-tier facility. “We’re not a hub,” he says; “I don’t think you’ll ever see Asheville being an airline hub. But there are so many things Asheville has going for it. It’s an origination and a destination city. We’re actually a good second-tier city.”

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