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Man planning to ‘fight a war on U.S. soil’ was released from jail days before attempting airport attack

Daily News

AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY BUNCOMBE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER; MANDATORY CREDIT.

Michael Estes, who was arrested for planting an explosive device at a North Carolina airport earlier this month, was released from jail eight days before the incident.

(AP)

The man arrested for planting an explosive device at a North Carolina airport earlier this month, who planned to “fight a war on U.S. soil,” was released from jail eight days before the incident.

Michael Christopher Estes, 46, had been convicted in 2016 of assault with intent to inflict serious bodily injury.

He reported to jail on Sept. 21 and was released a week later on Sept. 28, although he was sentenced to serve between 10 and 21 months, according to North Carolina state jail records.

Estes was sentenced for walking onto a man’s property and chasing him into a trailer, where he attacked him with a 16-inch knife and hatchet on July 31, 2015, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

He reportedly caused lacerations to the victim’s right temple, left tricep and on his left cheek from mouth to earlobe.

Estes was arrested most recently on Oct. 6 for attempted malicious use of explosive materials and unlawful possession of explosive materials in an airport.

He allegedly placed a homemade bomb created using a Mason jar full of ammonium nitrate, Sterno fuels, nails and a .410 gauge Winchester shotgun cartridge at the Asheville Regional Airport, according to a criminal complaint report filed in the Western District Court of North Carolina.

There was an alarm clock taped to the outside of the jar with matches pressed between the glass and one of the clock’s bells to make the matches strike and set off the device. The clock was set to go off at 6 o’clock.

A maintenance employee spotted Estes days earlier, wearing all black clothes, in a wooded area across the street from the airport.

Investigators checked surveillance camera footage at local Walmart and Lowe’s stores  in an effort to identify Estes.

Investigators checked surveillance camera footage at local Walmart and Lowe’s stores in an effort to identify Estes.

Investigators searched the area and discovered a green backpack and black tool bag partially covered with leaves, according to court reports.

After determining there was no bomb inside, investigators observed the contents — a roll of Gorilla Tape, Kobalt gloves, Sterno Firestar Gel, what appeared to be an alarm clock bell and a bag of red .410 gauge shotgun shells.

All of the items matched what was used in the device at the Asheville Airport.

Investigators checked surveillance camera footage at local Walmart and Lowe’s stores and identified the suspect.

They also visited an REI sporting goods store where Estes had purchased the backpack. While there was no security camera footage available, Estes had paid cash and used an REI membership number when paying, revealing his identity to investigators.

Estes was arrested one day after the device was discovered.

Court records show he waived his Miranda rights and spoke openly to police, admitting that he placed the device at the airport and revealing where he bought his supplies.

He claimed he was preparing to “fight a war on U.S. soil” but insists he did not actually set the clock to go off.

KCLT – Woman’s happy airport dance to Lionel Richie song goes viral

Missed flights and delays – many travellers have experienced frustrating dramas at airports.

But one woman made the most of a night spent at an airport in Charlotte, North Carolina after she missed her flight last week.

Mahshid Mazooji made a video of herself and airport staff dancing to Lionel Richie’s hit song “All Night Long”.

On her YouTube page, Mazooji explained that rather than be angry, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I didn’t want to sit in anger all night long, so instead I did what makes me happiest…DANCE!!!!” she wrote.

The video went viral and caught the eye of the superstar singer himself.

State board hears pitch for PTI, aviation spending

GREENSBORO — Airports are a great economic development vehicle and, oh, by the way, Piedmont Triad International Airport is a sterling example of that, PTI officials told the state Board of Transportation here Wednesday in an afternoon meeting.

The board that controls billions of dollars in road, rail and aviation money is holding its August meeting in Greensboro this week, and the 19-member panel got a pitch for continued support from airport director Kevin Baker and Piedmont Triad Airport Authority chairman Steve Showfety.

Baker thanked the board for approving $4 million to grade a piece of vacant airport land that was snagged quickly by HAECO, the aircraft maintenance and engineering company now building a hangar worth many millions more on that site.

“We’re getting a $60 million investment on top of that,” Baker said of the state’s feeder money, noting that airport projects frequently provide such lucrative returns.

He added that a taxiway bridge built as part of recently completed Interstate 73 from PTI to U.S. 220 will open up new tracts for similar, potential gains. But he said grading one such major piece of land could cost $75 million.

The state board stopped at PTI for lunch Wednesday and a 90-minute business session on the opening day of its two-day meeting. Board members also toured the High Point Furniture Market, Pomona Quarry, Honda Aircraft and other parts of PTI on Wednesday.

The board met locally because chairman Mike Fox, a Greensboro resident, wanted to revive the panel’s former practice of holding several meetings each year outside its normal Raleigh venue and suggested starting in his hometown.

In other action Wednesday, the board heard a consultant’s preliminary report about options to improve the troubled public-private partnership behind Charlotte’s Interstate 77 toll lanes project.

And state Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon reported that transportation and utility officials had worked together on a new, overhead power line to the Outer Banks that soon should restore service to the area, partly evacuated last week after a contractor accidentally severed underground electrical lines serving the islands.

In his remarks, PTI leader Showfety told the board the airport is blazing a new trail by combining convenient passenger air service with an economic development role aimed at growing the regional aviation industry and “providing another impetus for quality jobs in the Piedmont Triad.”

HAECO chief executive Richard Kendall drove home the point by telling the group about his company’s planned addition of 500 jobs linked to its fifth PTI hangar, now under construction, plus new company facilities in High Point to make furnishings used in refitting aircraft interiors.

Fox said that after he was named chairman of the transportation board this year he urged renewing the group’s past practice of holding several monthly meetings each year outside the state capital.

The board drifted away from that policy in recent years but Fox, a local attorney who served previously on the board, said he always found it helpful in improving his knowledge of the differing transportation needs from region to region. And it gave local officials better insight into how the state Department of Transportation functions and the issues state leaders face, he said.

“It was such a good learning experience on all sides,” Fox said. “The interaction really proved valuable.”

The board reconvenes this morning for a daylong meeting at the O. Henry Hotel on Green Valley Road to award contracts and hear presentations from local and regional officials about their areas’ transportation needs.

New Aviation Director named for Rowan County Airport

By David Whisenant – wbtv.com

Kevin Davis has been selected for the position of Rowan County Aviation Director.

Approximately 58 applications were received and 7 interviews were conducted to narrow the candidate pool, which resulted in 3 finalists.

The 3 finalists participated in a rigorous written examination followed by a Panel Interview consisting of Directors, Commissioners and the Airport Advisory Board.

County Manager Aaron Church stated, “This is a very important position for Rowan County and we were fortunate to have a large pool of qualified candidates. Kevin rose to the top and we are fortunate to have him join our team.”

Davis has over 3 years of experience working as an Airport Operations Officer for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the 5th busiest airport in North America.

Davis also served as an Airport Consultant with Newton & Associates, Inc., an aviation industry consulting firm.

Davis is a Career Pilot and earned a Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Public Administration from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His certificate in Aviation Management was earned at Guilford Technical Community College.

Davis is a member of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and a AAAE Certified Employee in Airfield Operations. He is currently enrolled in the AAAE Accredited Airport Executive Program.

Commissioner Craig Pierce stated, “The Airport is at a critical growing state and Kevin has the enthusiasm and education to take us to the next level. Kevin is a true professional, down to earth and very likable. I think the community will benefit for years to come from his expertise.”

Davis, a native of Winston-Salem, is an Eagle Scout and enjoys restoring classic muscle cars, flying aircraft and attending air shows. He recalled that “The Rowan County Airport was the very first place I landed a plane many years ago. This opportunity is a blessing and I look forward to becoming a part of the community while leading the airport.” Davis starts on July 17th and the County will host a reception at the airport for the public to meet Davis in August.

Chairman Greg Edds said, “The airport is a vital part of our community generating over 700 jobs and having an economic impact of almost one hundred million dollars. We are at a critical point and we believe Kevin has the skills necessary to take us to the next level. Kevin is a talented aviation professional who is energetic and eager to make a strong, positive impact at the Rowan County Airport.”

Soar spot: Concord’s airport in need of a makeover

David Brooks – Concord Monitor

Airport manager Dave Rolla talks about operations at the Concord Municipal Airport 

Although it has been a decade since the article was printed, fans of Concord Municipal Airport still wince at the thought of a New Yorker story about Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign that described the state’s oldest airport in unflattering terms.

“The terminal at the airport in Concord, New Hampshire, is small and shabby, and filled with seventies-era office furniture,” wrote Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s political writer, in the June 2007 article. “I went with Clinton to a small office; she took a seat behind a metal desk and joked about the ambience of the place. ‘We’ve got the dead bugs in the light fixture,’ she said, laughing and pointing.”

Dave Rolla, the airport’s general manager, sighed heavily when the article was mentioned last week.

“At least three people sent me copies,” he said. “I immediately threw out all the furniture, went home and brought in some couches from my house.”

Carlos Baia, Concord deputy city manager, echoes the painful memories. “It was about the worst advertisement you could have. … Not exactly what the Chamber of Commerce wants to see.”

And yet, both men admit, the story wasn’t fake news then and wouldn’t be fake news today. It was more like an inconvenient truth.

“This was built in 1937. It’s got 1937 wiring in it, it’s got the original windows,” said Rolla, gesturing around the main lobby of the terminal off Airport Road in southeast Concord – where, it must be admitted, dead bugs could be seen inside one of the fluorescent lights. “It’s old. It’s tired.”

And it’s not alone.

The “new” portion of the airport terminal was built in 1961. The adjacent building, home to Hertz rental cars and Concord Aviation Services, was built in the late 1940s, while the adjacent airplane hangar dates to the era of New Hampshire aviation pioneer Robert Fogg. Its curved roof can be seen in photos when Charles Lindbergh Jr. landed in Concord in 1927, and it hasn’t changed much since.

“To my knowledge, it’s the oldest active hanger in the state,” Rolla said. He doesn’t sound like he’s bragging.

Often overlooked

There are several reasons why the city-owned airport isn’t more up to date, one of which might come as a surprise: Even though the 614-acre airport is bigger than Steeplegate Mall and older than the historic city library, plenty of people don’t realize it exists.

“As part of a program, we used to give bus tours of the city. For a number of years I would take people to the airport – this was business people, who were doing business in the community – and it was inevitable, I’d hear people say: ‘I didn’t know this was even here!’ ” Baia said.

Such invisibility reflects the lack of passenger service, which means that unless you have access to a private plane or a company plane, there’s no reason to go there. That reduces any public pressure for upgrades, which wouldn’t come cheap.

“It would take probably $1.5 million to renovate the terminal. If you’re doing that, you might as well spent $2 million and replace it,” Rolla said. “Anybody who’s got an old house in New England can relate – how much money do you sink into it?”

For airports like Concord and 12 others in New Hampshire that are eligible, plenty of funding exists for runway and safety improvements. The usual formula is 90 percent federal money, 5 percent state and 5 percent city, and will apply to upgrades to taxiway A and the apron, which are slated for this year.

But there’s always a fight to get those funds, and the civilian buildings at Concord Airport rarely are eligible.

The terminal may get a lick of paint this year, assuming the city council spends roughly $20,000 earmarked in the budget and can find some donations to help out, but that’s it for the near term.

“It’s tough to develop a business model for a terminal,” admitted Rolla.

National Guard helps

Despite these woes, Concord Municipal Airport is actually better off than many small public airports thanks to the Army National Guard, which moved onto city-owned land at the airport in 2002.

The city anticipates making $351,177 from the airport this year, including the fee paid by the private Concord Aviation Services to manage the airport; leases of hangars and airplane parking spots known as tie-downs; and fuel sales. Two-thirds of that figure, or $224,400, is paid by the National Guard.

As a result, city taxpayers spend nothing to operate the facility. This is unusual for municipal airports, which rarely create enough direct income to cover their expenses.

“It’s no different than the highway system. You don’t expect (highways) to pay for themselves,” said Tricia Lambert, head of the Department of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics. As with highways and many other government services, the argument is that an airport is worth subsidizing because it generates indirect benefits in business, home values and recreation.

Concord’s happy financial situation may not last. The airport has operated in the red for a number of years – the fiscal year 2018 budget calls for $415,000 in spending and $351,000 in revenue – and is eating into a surplus that was built up during boom times. At the rate things are going, by 2022 the city’s general fund would have to start subsidizing the airport, Baia said.

Many difficulties

On top of a decline in general aviation that is hurting all small airports, Concord faces stiff competition from two nearby airports: Laconia for the casual pilot, especially those coming to the Lakes Region, and Manchester for business pilots.

Laconia Municipal Airport has spiffed up its terminal in recent years, on top of an $8 million runway expansion, and Rolla says it has lured away some private pilots. To the south, the new highway exit to Manchester airport puts it so close that some corporate jets are going there even when bringing clients to Concord.

“The pilots who fly corporate jets – if they have options of where to go, and they figure they’re going to spend six hours waiting while their clients are at a meeting, would they rather be in a facility that’s comfortable, appealing, has wi-fi, or in a facility that’s falling down around them and everything is very, very tired?” Rolla asked.

Similarly, most presidential candidates fly into Manchester these days even when coming to the capital.

Another blow to Concord is NASCAR’s decision to move one of its two annual races away from New Hampshire Motor Speedway next year. Scores of planes fly into Concord and stay there during race weekends, paying for slots and buying fuel. Rolla said the two NASCAR weekends have made up as much as 20 percent of Concord Aviation Services’ annual income.

Solutions

Baia says Concord is working to raise the airport’s public profile via such things as the Runway 5K, a foot race up and down the runways, during Aviation Day on Oct. 21.

It’s also looking for other sources of revenue, although limitations due to security and Federal Aviation Administration requirements makes that difficult. A driving school used to rent out the closed third runway and use it to teach extreme maneuvers, but the FAA nixed that idea because it isn’t aviation-related.

Much of the airport’s land cannot be developed because it is home to the extremely rare Karner Blue butterfly, the state’s official butterfly. Concord is planting lupins and otherwise prepping vacant city-owned land on Regional Drive, at the airport’s northern boundary, in hopes that they can swap it for some of the existing conservation land, making that land available for development.

“We do have some developable parcels, past where the National Guard is. We need to get better at marketing that,” Baia said.

But those city-owned parcels on Regional Drive are far from the terminal and the entrance, which are on Airport Road, making it hard to peddle them to companies that might pay extra for being able to quickly fly marketing staff to other parts of the country. “Frontage along Airport Road would be better for us, from a marketing standpoint,” admits Baia.

As for Rolla, the main thing he’d like to see is an expansion of the main runway, which is known as 17/35 because pilots are facing either 170 degrees or 350 degrees when they land, depending on which end is used based on the direction of the wind. It’s 6,000 feet long, much bigger than the 3,200 feet of the secondary runway known as 12/20, but Rolla would like to see it extended to 7,200 feet, to handle bigger corporate jets.

He points to Hendrick Motorsports, a huge North Carolina firm that used to fly into Concord to supports its race teams at the speedway.

In 1994, he said, it used 10 different 8-person aircraft. By 2005, as the company grew, it was flying in a trio of 40-passenger turboprops. Then in 2013, it switched to a couple of larger Canadair regional jets to cut costs. Those jets can safely land on 17/35, but the margin of error is so thin that rainy or icy weather could interfere with operations.

“They had been a customer for 20 years but they said goodbye – nothing you did wrong, but we’re going to Manchester,” Rolla said. “Replacing a big customer like Hendrick is very difficult to do.”

But he remains optimistic, he said. And in the meantime, Rolla had another job: Getting those dead bugs out of the light fixture.

 

Manager of Stanly County Airport Retires

After more than 32 years at the controls of the Stanly County Airport, Manager David Griffin announced his final approach on the job.

At the end of next week Griffin, 69, will conclude more than three decades as airport manager and officially retire. He’ll be remembered as the accidental airport manager who with no relative experience piloted Stanly County into aviational significance, making it one of the most unique airports in the U.S.

“I had no qualifications to be an airport manager,” Griffin admitted. “I was a licensed pilot — that was it. That was not an asset — doesn’t give you an advantage.”

Griffin said as much to Carlton “Buddy” Holt, then mayor of Albemarle, who called on Griffin to forgo an impending move to Florida. Holt wanted Griffin to stay in Stanly and take over as airport manager.

“Buddy, I don’t know a darn thing about running an airport,” Griffin recalled. “Buddy laughed and said ‘that’s OK. If I remember correctly you didn’t know anything about the health department either.'”

Holt was referring to Griffin’s circuitous journey in environmental health, which followed an early job in the grocery business. The first of those 12 years in environmental health began in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, then Stanly before leaving for Anson County, where he was raised.

Griffin had just negotiated an offer to move to Florida as an environmental health manager when Holt intervened.

At that time Stanly County enjoyed a bustling economic climate, primarily due to textiles. Company executives then relied on the county’s airport, which had a runway of 4,400-feet-long, 75-feet wide.

Once on the job, Griffin sought airport expansion. He wanted a longer runway of at least 5,000 feet and an instrumental landing system.

First, however, he had to secure funding with the latter costing about $2.5 million during the mid 80s.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do know how to read,” Griffin said as he boned up on how to obtain grants from the Aviation Trust Fund, which held about $22 billion for various airport projects across the U.S.

Repeated attempts, however, led to the countless rejections by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Back then a lot of aviation money was coming into North Carolina, but not Stanly County,” Griffin said.

Griffin noticed the small town of Wilkesboro seemed to be getting more than its fair share of aviational funding, primarily because of influential corporations like Holly Farms.

“One of the last excuses given to me was that we didn’t have the support of the community, Griffin said of the FAA’s explanations. “I thought that’s a pretty feeble excuse.”

Next Griffin gathered all the county’s corporate executives and other stakeholders together along with a slideshow of an active Stanly airport for FAA leaders to see. Although they were impressed with Griffin’s efforts, funding rejections fcontinued.

FAA representatives explained there simply wasn’t enough money to share with Stanly, Griffin recalled.

“I’m an old country boy from Anson County and my math is simple, but I knew there was enough money,” Griffin said.

Then one day while Griffin was griping about the elusive funds of the FAA and its seemingly unfair politics, a bystander overheard him and suggested he call the 145th tactical airlift of the Air National Guard (ANG) in Charlotte. The gentleman advised Griffin that each of them had a problem that could bear mutually-rewarding solutions.

As it turned out, the ANG unit struggled to find airports suitable for necessary training. The airports had to be able to accommodate the ANG’s C-130 airplanes. As Charlotte Douglas International Airport continued to grow, commercial airlines demanded more space, which squeezed the ANG, Griffin explained.

Forced to travel to other airports in convoys of loaded equipment, the ANG sometimes found themselves bumped for other military training.

“It didn’t happen all the time. But, it happened often enough the crew couldn’t maintain their efficiency,” Griffin said.

It seemed the ANG was getting repeatedly denied training opportunities as Stanly rejected for funding.

“We had a lot of things in common,” Griffin added.

In 1989, the Stanly County Airport struck a deal with the ANG providing the 145th tactical airlift unit with a guaranteed venue for training. In exchange, the ANG ensured the Stanly airport would get the upgrades sought, and needed for the heavier C-130s.

Consequently, military funding poured into the airport.

Stanly got its runway lengthened to 5,500 feet and widened to 100 feet. It also obtained the coveted instrumental landing system as well as an aviational weather monitoring system.

Over a 20-year period, some $60 million poured into the county airport. ANG pumped in $40 million. Even the FAA tried to reclaim relevance by tossing in $15 million. The state and local government pitched in the rest.

Since then the relationship with the ANG has benefitted the airport with a radar system, control tower and two parallel runways.

Per the ANG, a fire department is provided to the airport, which also responds to nearby calls off airport property.

“It was a windfall for Stanly County Airport,” Griffin said.

The relationship has also served the ANG as the group has made the airport their home way from home.

Col. Troy Gerock, Commander of the 145th Airlift Wing, called the arrangement “invaluable.”

“Within 20 minutes we can go over there and engage in two hours of training,” Gerock said.

He also acknowledges that all of that is possible because of Griffin.

“He has opened up the airport to us,” Gerock said. “I can’t think of anybody easier to work with.”

Because of all the upgrades and its arrangement with the ANG, the airport generates an economic impact of $100 million annually, Griffin said of an economic impact study.

County Manager Andy Lucas recognizes economic benefits of the airport’s deal with the ANG.

“The partnership with the ANG is the life blood of our general aviation airport,” Lucas said. “The ANG’s economic impact on Stanly County is significant. The ANG staff and visitors frequent our restaurants and hotels generating sales tax and tourism tax revenue. Further, the ANG’s facilities provide a training ground for visiting troops from other areas of the U.S. and other countries. When these troops come to the base for training they typically frequent many of our retail establishments.”

He also understands Griffin’s hand in the relationship with the ANG.

“David’s interpersonal skills, knowledge of airport operations and outstanding relationship with the various ANG personnel have served him well over the years,” Lucas added.

Like most enterprise funds, including airports, they’re always necessary and typically cost more than they earn. Stanly’s airport, however, fares better than most.

Stanly typically appropriates around $300,000 annually for the airport, but it actually costs roughly one-third of the sum.

“The remaining funds come from fuel sales, State grants, hangar and office space lease revenue,” Lucas said.

Roughly 45 airplanes are housed at the county’s airport in hangars, generating property taxes for Stanly’s coffers. There’s a waiting list for others to house their planes, too.

While Griffin might have lacked airport management experience, his self-professed stubborn streak equipped him to never quit on securing the funds to advance the airport. Add his good ol’ country boy, laid-back personality and he became the ideal leader for the job.

“He leads us with direction and then lets us go,” said Becky Broadway, airport operations specialist. “He’s never been one to look over our shoulder or micro-manage.”

Gerock said Griffin’s is personable and direct, void of any “double speak” or “political correctness” that sometimes gets in the way of effective communication.

“We find him to be very down-to-earth,” Gerock said. “I’ve never seen him frustrated. He tells you like it is.”

Stanly’s airport, along with its near 1,000 acres, is poised for new growth. As the military looks to retire the workhorse C-130 for the newer C-17, there will be a need for additional upgrades since it carries a heavier load. The runway will be required to convert to concrete instead of asphalt at that time, Griffin said.

A new manager, preferably with military experience, is expected to be named in the coming weeks with Griffin lending a hand with his replacement’s transition.

Mostly, Griffin plans to spend more time with his family and turkey hunting.

$35.4M in Improvements Coming to 11 NC Airports

Abbie Bennett: Aviation Pros

Improvements are on the way for 11 North Carolina airports following approval of $35.4 million in state funding for aviation projects by the N.C. Board of Transportation.

Along with enhancing safety, the planned upgrades will support and help generate more economic activity and tourism for the state, according to a news release from the N.C. Department of Transportation on Monday.

“Airports are a critical part of North Carolina’s transportation system,” said N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation Director Bobby Walston. “Completing these projects will increase the safety of these facilities while also maintaining the link these airports provide our state to the national and global economies.”

Projects and estimated costs include:

Albert J. Ellis (Jacksonville) Airport: lighting, signage and electrical vault replacement — $1,400,000

Billy Mitchell (Hatteras) Airport: repaving — $1,200,000

Coastal Carolina (New Bern) Airport: runway repaving — $3,000,000

Duplin County Airport: runway widening and improved lighting — $4,000,000

First Flight (Kill Devil Hills) Airport: repaving — $1,000,000

Kinston Regional Airport: runway and taxiway repaving — $8,000,000

Laurinburg Maxton Airport: taxiway repaving — $2,000,000

Ocracoke Island Airport: repaving — $1,200,000

Rockingham-Shiloh Airport: runway repaving — $3,600,000

Statesville Airport: taxiway parallel construction — $8,000,000

Tarboro-Edgecombe County Airport: runway repaving, updating airfield lighting and repairing damage caused by Hurricane Matthew — $2,000,000

Statewide airport data from 2016 shows aviation contributed more than $31 billion in annual economic impact to the North Carolina economy, including 123,400 airport-related jobs.

With the exception of the Albert J. Ellis Airport project, which will be funded 90 percent by the state and 10 percent locally, each of these safety projects are completely state-funded, according to DOT. The funds being used are allocated for safety, operations and maintenance.

Senate budget puts $90 million into regional airports

While the N.C. House prepares to release it’s budget later in the week, the one the N.C. Senate approved early Friday morning contained $90 million in state money for regional airports across the state. Senators say the funding is to bring infrastructure up to speed and keep the state’s economy moving. Part of the money is from taxes paid on rental cars that used to go into the state’s General Fund. Under the Senate’s budget it would go into the State Highway Fund for airports.

It represents a big shift because for years airports in N.C. have been funded primarily through federal money collected by taxes on tickets. With ticket prices stagnating, federal funding is drying up.

“We are talking about a serious economic driver and it hasn’t had to be a state priority because it’s been a federal funding issue,” said Ches McDowell, lobbyist for the N.C. Airport Association.

“We have to fundamentally change how airports are funded; that’s what the legislature has made a priority to do,” McDowell added. “Sen. [Bill] Rabon, especially, believes that airports are a big part of transportation infrastructure and a part of creating jobs in manufacturing and other industries here.”

Among the allocations would be more than $2 million for the Fayetteville Regional Airport, $14.3 million for Piedmont Triad International Airport, and $52.6 million for Raleigh-Durham International Airport toward runway improvements. The other airports say that they plan to improve taxiway lighting and make runway and ramp improvements. Wilmington International Airport would get nearly $12 million for their proposed $80 million improvement program that includes a terminal expansion and a parking garage. Charlotte Douglas International Airport was not listed among those airports to receive funds but could be in future allocations.

Eamon Queeney | North State Journal
An American Airlines flight lands at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Friday, May 19, 2017. The North Carolina Senate has proposed a budget that contains $90 million in state money for regional airports across the state to improve infrastructure at RDU for example.

At Raleigh-Durham Internaional Airport, just outside the state’s capital city, airport officials say the money is critical to keep up with the increasing demands for international flights. They say that they will put the money toward a $300 million project to replace the main runway. RDU serves 11 million travelers a year and 30,000 a day. If the runway is not replaced, officials say, nonstop flights to the West Coast, London and Paris could be at risk.

“This is welcome news to airports, communities and travelers around the state, who deserve a safe and efficient aviation system,” said Michael Landguth, president and CEO of RDU. “The federal funding system alone cannot be relied upon to help our state compete for jobs and business investment.”

McDowell says the funds are part of a long-term strategy to invest in key infrastructure to make N.C. more appealing to companies considering relocating to the state and bringing high-paying jobs. According to site selectors, connectivity in airports is a critical factor. N.C.’s airports are also used for military housed in the state.

“This indicates that N.C. absolutely does not play around when we are talking about our infrastructure,” said McDowell. “You can’t look at infrastructure as one thing, like we should spend money on highways not airports, seaports, not rail. It’s all connected, and the legislature is making a serious investment in all these modes. It’s all a part of the puzzle.”

The money would be distributed to airports over two years, $40 million next year and $50 million the following, and could be spent on improvements or to pay debt services or other finance costs.

The Senate passed the measure as part of their budget 32-15 in a vote taken Friday in the very early hours. The House has reportedly already completed their part of the transportation plan and is expected to release their full budget later in the week.

Airport packs economic punch

By LINDELL JOHN KAY – Rocky Mount Telegram

Business is taking off at the Rocky Mount–Wilson Regional Airport.

Considered the “Jewel of Rocky Mount” by business travelers and pilots, the local airport supports 120 jobs — directly, indirectly or induced — that amount to a total annual payroll of $5.3 million. The airport also lands an annual total of $25.6 million in economic activity for Nash County, according to a 2016 report of North Carolina airports.

“We think it’s actually four times that number,” said Airport Director Dion Viventi, who took the controls at the airport in August.

A Rutgers University graduate, civil engineer, officer in the N.C. Civil Air Patrol, multi-engine commercial pilot, husband and father of four young children, Viventi is turning the airport around with the help of a dedicated crew.

The airport will be including a marketing plan with its Strategic Master Plan later this year.

“The first airport in North Carolina to do that,” Viventi said.

Viventi is planning an airshow for October — “when the weather is still warm, but not so so brutal” — and an open house next spring.

“We want everyone to know what we’ve got going on out here,” Viventi said.

Built in 1969, the 504-acre airport, which once ran commercial flights during the heyday of regulated airlines, is mostly forgotten today, except by the business and industry leaders that use the 7,100-foot runway on a daily basis.

Frequent fliers include Stallings Eagle Transport and Barnhill Contractors. Regular users include CSX, BB&T, Cummins Engines, Keihen Carolina, PNC Bank, Walmart and the state and federal governments.

The airport has 16 aircraft based on the field including jets, helicopters and single-engine and multi-engine planes. The airport averages 82 operations a day with 65 percent being transient general aviation, 29 percent local general aviation, 4 percent air taxi and 2 percent military.

The comfortable and spacious terminal looks more like the lobby of a posh hotel than the sterile environment at most airports. The building also houses a pilot’s briefing room, lounge and crew rest areas. And a car rental kiosk and hotel shuttle service make trips easy.

While the airport doesn’t have a tower, it boasts a very reliable and accurate weather system operated and maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, including a computer-generated voice message that is broadcast via radio frequency to pilots in the vicinity of an airport or by telephone anywhere. The system also provides up-to-the-minute weather information to pilots and to the FAA for national dissemination via computer.

The airport is manned by air rescue firefighters ready to respond to hazard mitigation, evacuation and possible rescue of passengers and crew of an aircraft involved in an airport ground emergency.

Also based at the airport are the air ambulance services Metro Aviation for Vidant-East Care and Air Methods-Wake Med. The Civil Air Patrol-Tar River Composite Squadron also is based at the airport.

Beside bringing big business to Nash County, the airport also helps in providing search and rescue and disaster relief, cadet programs, orientation flights, aerospace education and STEM resources.

The airport’s operating budget for fiscal year 2016 was a $7 million net position and $6.9 million in total capital assets.

Legislation could help fund RDU runway, statewide airport projects

Raleigh-Durham International Airport officials say a bill filed at the N.C. General Assembly could help pay for a $305 million project to rebuild its longest runway, which is needed to continue to accommodate and attract new international flights.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Brunswick County and chair of the Senate Rules Committee, filed Senate Bill 351 that would allocate $100 million for runway improvements at RDU over two years, starting July 1.

The money would come from a short-term motor vehicle lease and rental tax, which generates about $65 million per year. That money currently goes into the general fund, but Rabon’s bill would instead put it into the dwindling Highway Fund, he said.

“The money for these short-term leases – it’s really money that is generated by airports and by transportation, and it should go back in transportation,” he said. “I think it would just do a world of good.”

Rabon said he initially included RDU in the bill because he knew it “desperately” needs a longer runway to accommodate international flights, and he wanted to find a way to facilitate that.

But he said he has some changes he hopes to make to the bill later this session to make it an ongoing source of revenue for projects needed at airports statewide, “so the whole state benefits not just one individual.”

“Airports really, really have a huge return on investment as far as transportation and state dollars that we put in,” Rabon said.

The state’s Highway Fund has provided money to airports since 2006 but only for general aviation airports. All publicly-owned airports have been eligible to receive capital project funding from the state’s Highway Trust Fund since 2015.

Under existing state funding sources, RDU gets $500,000 per year, said Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO. “Half a million dollars doesn’t go very far,” he said.

Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs, said Rabon’s bill is a step in the right direction, particularly, she said, since “airport funding is broken at the federal level.”

“We don’t feel tremendously optimistic about new tools at the federal level at this point,” she said. “But we’re not going to quit trying.”

Talks about airport funding

State funding is just one element needed for RDU to rebuild its runway. RDU is working on a funding model that officials hope to release this summer that would lay out how the runway would be paid for. This could include state or federal funding or airport revenues, such as parking and landing fees.

RDU officials have recently been in talks with some of the state’s congressional representatives about receiving more federal money. Staff said for every dollar the airport has paid into the Federal Airport Improvement Program, it has gotten back about 3.7 cents. That’s because the $20 billion needed by U.S. airports each year is significantly more than the funding available through federal programs, according to a report by Airports Council International – North America, an association representing airport owners and operators.

Also, under federal rules, RDU must forgo 75 percent of the airport improvement program money it is entitled to because it collects a $4.50 facility charge from every passenger who boards a plane there. Airport officials nationwide are urging Congress to repeal that rule as well as lift the $4.50 cap on passenger facility charges, which haven’t been raised since 2000.

“As we start to look at the taxes the citizens of this region are paying into the Federal Airport Improvement Program versus what we are getting back, I don’t believe that it’s fair and equitable,” Landguth said. “When we are coming forward with a program like a runway, it should be a number one program that should be funded appropriately … We’ve paid into the system for years, and it’s time to get our fair funding back.”

RDU’s runway will need to be rebuilt in the next few years before it reaches the end of its useful life. It will be built parallel to the existing 10,000-foot runway which is on the western side of the airport. There is no set timeline for when construction will begin or how long it will take, at least until RDU receives approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to RDU staff.

If the useful life of the runway were to end before a new one is built, the airport would have only one commercial runway, and at 7,500 feet, it isn’t long enough to accommodate trans-Atlantic or trans-continental flights. A new runway also would be needed if the airport hopes to attract a flight to China.

“We can’t wait to get started on this because the runway life is short,” VanAuken said. “We simply can’t wait. We have to get moving.”

Other airports

While RDU’s runway may be the most pressing aviation project across the state, some of the more than 70 other publicly-owned airports in North Carolina also could benefit from a source of funding for capital projects.

In the last seven years, Triangle North Executive Airport in Louisburg has grown from having 80 aircraft based there to 130, said Steve Merritt, airport manager. The airport is one of several in the area, including Raleigh Executive Jetport in Sanford and Johnston County Airport, that provide relief to RDU.

“They’re growing, and we’re growing,” Merritt said. “We are only restricted by the pot of money we can get.”

Triangle North Executive Airport recently completed a $2 million project to increase capacity for more corporate customers. There also are plans to extend the runway from 5,500 to 6,500 feet and strengthen it to accommodate heavier jets with an anticipated $11 million state grant. The grant also would help make more land available for infrastructure.

“If there is a way to get more money for the airport system, I would absolutely be in favor of that,” Merritt said. “I don’t think we could have too much money. The needs are almost limitless.”