CEREDO — Approximately one year ago, Huntington Tri-State Airport had no idea what the future would hold.
But as the calendar turned to March 2020, the reality of what the novel coronavirus was and could be affected travel and transportation organizations that felt it instantly, including at the local level.
“It was right away that people stopped traveling and started having regulations about staying at home and social distancing, so we went from a full flight schedule to next to nothing,” said Brent Brown, HTS executive director.
He said many airports across the country saw enplanements, or travelers, decrease by as much as 60%. For Huntington Tri-State, that number was lower, but it still lost approximately 40% of its normal traffic.
For an airport that pulls most of its profit from fuel sales and parking fees, the outlook wasn’t bright, but Brown said HTS received approximately $1.7 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, which helped them see things through without any reduction in staff or major operations.
“When you compare us to other airports out there, typically you see a lot of leases and business parks and that revenue supplements air-side operations. We’re on a mountaintop, and because of that, we don’t have that luxury,” said Brown. “It was extremely important to us to receive that help and that funding.”
Also helpful was Allegiant Air, one of just two airlines that serve Huntington and the surrounding areas. The other, American Airlines, suspended operations there for about three months from October to January.
“I think by the time summer rolled around (in 2020), people were already tired of being at home and anxious to hop on a plane and escape the monotony.
Allegiant kept their flights going for us and people were utilizing their services, and because of that we were one of the lucky few that actually kept going and we had reasonable numbers, considering the circumstances,” Brown added.
The Airport Authority, Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration all have a hand in daily operations in the terminal and surrounding facilities.
Each entity, Brown said, also had some of their own restrictions that they worked under to keep operations safe for all staff and travelers. But together they made one unified force for safety that touched every part of the airport, from the air traffic control tower to the ticket counters.
“We are providing a lot of extra cleaning, we went to a much higher grade of air filter in our HVAC systems so we could clean air filtered through the terminal, and then, of course, we are supporting the airlines and their requirements like masks and other things for their customers,” Brown said.
A big discussion happening industrywide, Brown added, is on the subject of business travel, which has dropped significantly since the pandemic began. He estimated it might take one to two years before numbers fully rebound.
“It is going to be very slow, and airports and airlines are going to have to be patient as those numbers recover,” he said, “but I would expect that those numbers would come back in about a year or two, and obviously we want to see that.”
One thing the pandemic didn’t put a stop to are some major renovation projects on the grounds, specifically along the south edge of the runway safety area where a 14-acre pond was drained last year.
“When we drained it, it exposed a big slide, which we were worried might impede into the runway safety area, so we were able to get funding from the FAA and the state to repair that slide and create a drainage system to stabilize the slope along the edge,” Brown said.
That project is expected to be completed by fall 2021. Meanwhile, another project will begin this summer.
“Right now we are in the big process of another slide repair on the north side of the airport along the access road to the west end hangars, fuel facility and snow removal equipment. That access road has an active slide that is right on the edge of the road,” Brown said.
The FAA provided funding to HTS for a temporary fix to stop the slide where it was, giving the airport administration time to develop a plan for a more permanent fix. With the design portion finished, the project has moved to the bidding stage and Brown hopes construction will begin this summer.