Lebanon Airport Nears Milestone

Lebanon Municipal Airport’s outbound passengers are up 9 percent from last year, putting the airport close to being eligible for $1 million from the federal government.

The Lebanon airport used to be a bustling place with three commercial airlines. In its heyday in the early 1990s, the airport saw 50,000 outbound passengers annually. But lately it’s been viewed as a financial burden to the city, and in 2009, outbound passengers dipped to 6,200.

But in the last few years, the airport has seen a steady increase in passengers. In 2011, the airport saw 9,324 outbound passengers, according to airport records. At the end of October last year, the airport had only recorded 7,751 outbound passengers, but this year the numbers were up to 8,472 by Halloween.

“I look at it as a huge positive,” Airport Manger Rick Dyment said. “The more money we get from the (Federal Aviation Administration), the more city facilities get approved at no cost to the city.”

To earn the annual $1 million from the federal Airport Improvement Program, the airport must reach 10,000 outbound passengers by the end of the year. (The program only counts “enplanements,” or passengers that take off from Lebanon airport. ) If the airport reaches 10,000, it’ll be the first time since 2001.

Although it didn’t reach the goal last year, the airport qualified for $1 million last year because the program offered exceptions to facilities that were hurt by the economic downturn, Dyment said.

The federal funds can be used only for facility improvements, such as airfield work, lighting, runway resurfacing, reconstruction, safety projects, tree clearing, environmental work or mitigation. This past year, Dyment used the $1 million for tree clearing near the airport’s property line and to expand its equipment building.

Each time the airport takes money from the FAA for capital improvements — including the $1 million — it extends a roughly 20-year commitment to keep the airport open.

“It sounds onerous, but it isn’t because it’s just common sense. FAA is protecting it’s investment by keeping it open,” Dyment said.

The airport and Cape Air, the facility’s lone commercial airline, are kicking off a campaign to reach its goal, including reduced fares for flights to Boston and White Plains, N.Y. There will also be a campaign sign on the Lebanon green next week that will show a rising thermometer.

For Dyment, reaching 10,000 passengers is not just a goal for this year, but far into the future. Ideally, he’d like to see 10,000 to 15,000 every year. Having more passengers not only brings more business into the airport, it also helps push money back to Lebanon. Each outbound passenger pays a $4.50 fee to the city, money used for capital projects at the airport, Dyment said.

While the $1 million would help the airport’s facilities, another issue is heavy on Dyment’s mind. Amid conversations on the fiscal cliff, Congress could make cuts to programs like the Essential Air Service.

The Essential Air Service provides an annual subsidy of $2.2 million to Cape Air to provide service to Lebanon. Without the subsidy, there wouldn’t be a commercial airline at the airport, which would mean the airport wouldn’t be viable.

Congress threatened to eliminate the Essential Air Service last year, but the House turned back the effort to eliminate the program. It’s unclear how the government might handle the fiscal cliff, but Dyment said that funding for the Essential Air Service is always a concern.

“It wouldn’t have a direct impact on the airport, but if it affects Cape Air’s operation, then it would affect the airport,” Dyment said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.