Harrison-Marion Airport A Valuable Asset For Entire North Central Region

The State Journal - page 26

by Danny Forinash, Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT (Monday, November 5, 2001)

In many airports across the country, it might seem strange having men in camouflage around, but personnel at the Harrison-Marion Regional Airport are used to it.

National Guard engineers helped extend the runway from 5,200 to 7,000 feet in 1999. It is the longest runway in the state now.

"There isn't an airplane in the sky that could not land at this airport if it wanted to," says Roger Diaz, a Harrison County commissioner and president of the Harrison-Marion Regional Airport Authority.

The troops, in fact, will be continuing to help with airport development until 2005. The work is part of their training.

"And we reap the benefits," Diaz says "They're already working before the contractors even get here."

The National Guard engineers will next assist in the removal of 6 million cubic feet of hill top adjacent to the north end of the airport that will free up about 45 acres of space available for development. The dirt will be used to create level land.

The project will also allow Fairmont State College's Robert C. Byrd Aerospace Education Center to double the size of its building, a $15 million undertaking. The center which has sat on the other side of the hill for about 10 years, offers two-year courses in aircraft maintenance and airport management, and many of the graduates actually work at the airport now.

The constant growth is a reason why the regional airport is "one of the anchors in Harrison County," Diaz said. "It is a doorway to the world, so far as travel is concerned."

Not only might flights bring in travelers to the local community, the approximately 900 employees who work for businesses located at the airport spend the money they make in the local community.

The, airport authority leases space to Hertz, Avis and Budget, all car rental services, Mesa Airways, which is affiliated with U.S. Airways, Delta and Interspace Advertising.

The authority also rents 50 hangars for general aviation use and several larger hangars to corporations.

Pratt & Whitney, for example, is using a new $3 million facility for exchanging and rebuilding plane engines. Loaner engines are handed out while the original engines are repaired and renovated, allowing the aircraft to be back in the air within a few days instead of a few weeks.

Another company located at the airport, Bombardier Services, specializes in airplane retro-fitting and repair. Right now, they are in the process of repainting, gutting and re-leasing several Midway airplanes after the airline went out of business.

Another company, Aurora Flight Sciences, works with the federal government in building unmanned spy planes.  They are operating under a $3 million federal contract for development.

In addition, the West Virginia Air Center, which specializes in repairs associated with flying and K.C.I. Enterprises, a fulll-service garage for airplanes, also make their home at Harrison-Marion Regional Airport.

For the future, Diaz says the airport is actively involved in discussions with Lockheed Martin about possibly relocating some of its services to the airport. He says they are also involved in talks with another aircraft manufacturer, which he wouldn't name. He expects that company to begin construction in about two years.

The airport, he says, offers a low cost, attractive site for prospective businesses.

It also offers customers an attractive alternative, he says, "especially from high-profile, large airports like Reagan and Kennedy. I see this area as something moreattractive. We offer the same level of service, but our profile is much lower."

This prediction comes as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and although usership has already started to return to normal, the Harrison-Marion airport, like most, saw a big decline in September.  Last year, 15,791 people used the airport for travel.

This year was on track for similar numbers, and so far, 12,249 have flown.  But only 748 took took to the skies in September, while 1,401 did so in August.  Two daily flights to Washington D.C. and one to Washington D.C. and one to Pittsburgh were lost because of sluggish business.

Aside from security concerns, there are also issues of convenience to deal with, Diaz says. New federal regulations prohibit parking within 300 feet of the airport, and this has cut the number of spaces at the Bridgeport airport from 700 to 250.

Lack of customers is evident in the mostly empty Galley Restaurant, which sits atop the airport's main office. It took a substantial hit in gross receipts, so the board agreed to forgo the restaurant's rent until they saw a turnaround.

But with all the work going on at the airport, Diaz can't help but to see "a light at the end of the tunnel...I see this whole area becoming larger. Businesses, especially large businesses, will be attracted to the airport in the next year or two."

The airport opened in 1935 as the Tri-County Airport after Harrison, Marion and Taylor counties obtained sponsorship from their courts. In 1937, Marion and Taylor withdrew from the project, and the Harrison County Court purchased the land.

The airport was renamed the Benedum, Airport after millionaire businessman Michael Benedum backed up the facility with a promissory note in case of the default. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corp. used it as a training base, and it wasn't until 1948 that is was put to commercial use.

Eight months ago, the name changed to Harrison-Marion Regional Airport.  The terminal still reflects the Benedum name, however.  And Harrison-Marion reflects what is now a 50/50 ownership of the facility between the two counties.

Six U.S. Airways flights to Pittsburgh and one Delta flight to Cincinnati now go out daily from the airport.