The Lynchburg Regional Airport Commission took steps toward transitioning to an independent authority after bringing the topic before city council this week.
At a joint work session between the airport commission and Lynchburg City Council Tuesday, council members approved a resolution directing the commission to compile a plan outlining details of how an independent authority would operate. City council did not give the commission guidelines or requirements for the plan.
City Manager Bonnie Svrcek said the plan probably would not be presented to council until January.
Six council members voted in favor of the resolution, with councilman Jeff Helgeson voting against it, saying there are too many unknowns and not enough compelling reasons for the change. If council were to ultimately approve adoption of an airport authority, the airport would no longer be owned and operated by Lynchburg and would function as a business rather than a city department.
The airport commission currently reports to city council, which appoints the nine members. An independent authority would be a separate, self-sustaining entity.
The Lynchburg Regional Airport Commission moved to recommend the change at a meeting on Aug. 27 after reviewing a report from consultant Steve Baldwin.
At Tuesday's meeting, Baldwin presented his findings on the airport’s current financial growth and efficiency, as well as advantages to the new model. The report did not cite any negative consequences for the city in moving to an independent authority.
Since April, the airport commission paid Baldwin about $50,000 to assess the airport and the commission and develop a report.
According to Baldwin’s report, the airport generates $180 million annually in regional economic impact, 1,774 jobs, and wages totaling $60 million annually. Baldwin did not indicate how those numbers would change if the airport operated as an independent authority.
Since 1990, the commission has advised the city on planning, organization and direction of the airport. Although the airport is in Campbell County, Lynchburg has owned and operated the airport since 1931. Lynchburg Regional Airport is the only commercial service airport in Virginia not overseen by an independent authority, according to the report.
Baldwin said the airport’s current operating model is seen as dated within the airport industry, and an authority can streamline the airport’s decision-making process.
“There’s probably not a better time in your airport’s history to do this,” Baldwin said Tuesday. He added it is “a little bit risky” that American Airlines is the only carrier servicing the airport. “We think you need to strive hard to get a second carrier in here.”
After 9/11, the airport lost service with United to Dulles International Airport, and in 2011, Delta discontinued service to Lynchburg, said Airport Director Mark Courtney, who will be stepping down in November.
Councilman Randy Nelson asked if the airport change would guarantee the addition of more carriers flying in and out of Lynchburg.
Baldwin said an authority would allow the airport to make decisions without having to bring it before city council — a business-like process that would be more attractive to potential new airlines.
“Why would any airline professional want to deal with me when I don’t know how an airport operates?” asked councilman Turner Perrow. He added flights out of Lynchburg don’t go to major hubs like Atlanta or Dulles, and do not directly access the western part of the country. “We’ve got Charlotte and nothing but Charlotte,” he said.
Courtney said the airport’s small staff gets overwhelmed by the bureaucratic process, which can get in the way of priorities like convincing airlines to service Lynchburg.
“We’re not able to be nimble,” Courtney said. “We need to operate as a small business.”
The airport is always trying to convince airlines to service Lynchburg and has been active in trying to meet with United Airlines, he said, adding that the commission was told United has paused expanding to regional airports and would most likely not resume expansion for one to two years.
“If your goal is to grow … then the [current] city model is not the best to choose from,” said Bob Day, an airport commission member.
Councilman Beau Wright asked how surrounding counties have reacted to the proposed change, and commission member Bert Dodson said county leaders have not been asked about their thoughts.
Courtney said the airport's next steps include hearing if nearby counties are interested in serving on the proposed airport authority. State legislation in place regarding the authority asks that another government entity partners with the City of Lynchburg in holding seats on the potential airport authority board. Council is looking to revise the legislation so that the airport could still become an authority if counties are not interested.
Councilman Sterling Wilder asked about the property the airport sits on, which is currently owned by the City of Lynchburg. Baldwin said the city could lease the land to the airport authority, or the city could transfer the property deed to the authority.
Nelson expressed worry over giving up the airport as an asset to the city, pointing out taxpayers have supported the airport over the years and said he didn’t want the authority to make airport operations less transparent. Over the past 18 years, the city has invested $8 million in the airport.
He added that he doesn’t want the airport authority to become “like an oligarchy without any check or balance.”
Helgeson said hearing Baldwin’s report made him less in favor of an independent authority than before. He said he feels there isn’t a compelling enough reason for the change, and while there could be benefits, there would be unintended consequences as well.
Baldwin said he had not seen other airports experience unintended consequences of moving to an independent authority, and could not outline specific downsides.
“We as a council that are elected by the citizens … you ask us to just give away those assets,” Helgeson said. “I think we can stay with this model, have oversight, and have and still want growth.”