Published Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:26 pm
World-Herald Editorial: Airport planning has taken flight

Thanksgiving week always brings the year’s biggest surge in airline travel. This year, around 3.1 million passengers nationwide were forecast to take to the air for Thanksgiving-week trips.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Travel Association reports that the long-term trend for our country’s biggest airports is for noticeably higher passenger numbers. The increased numbers will filter down to a considerable number of regional airports, the association projects.

Given this background, it’s encouraging that Omaha’s Eppley Airfield continues to serve the Omaha area well through efficient operations and sound long-range planning.

The 20-year planning document recently approved by the Omaha Airport Authority Board provides a good illustration. The plan prudently prepares for future growth as needed, but it doesn’t automatically commit the airport unless conditions warrant.

In the words of David Roth, Eppley’s director of strategic planning and engineering, “Everything is based on demand.”

As recent news coverage by The World-Herald’s Paige Yowell explained, the plan sets out three sets of expansion or construction projects, all dependent on when and whether passenger counts increase to certain levels.

The specific numbers: 4.8 million for phase one; 5.4 million for phase two; 7 million for phase three.

During 2012, Eppley served 4.1 passengers. That’s down from the airport’s high-water mark of 4.4 million passengers in 2007 and follows a general pattern for many U.S. airports in the wake of the Great Recession.

So, as Eppley officials note, it will take a while to begin hitting the higher thresholds.

At the same time, it makes a lot of sense for the airport authority to plan for prospective growth. One reason is Omaha’s economic vitality and growing national reputation. The airport needs to be ready to accommodate that growth.

In fact, it’s a mutual relationship: Omaha enjoys strong growth prospects in part because it is served by a well-run airport.

Multiple rankings have noted this area’s high quality of life and pro-growth business climate. In addition, the national spotlight routinely shines on Omaha as a host site for such national events as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and U.S. Figure Skating Championships, plus such hearty perennials as the College World Series and the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. These are strong indicators of long-term vitality for this region.

Sound long-term planning has demonstrated its value for Eppley in the past. The airport’s expansion to a total of 20 gates during the late 1980s — construction stretched over three years — was prudently planned. It provided capacity and flexibility that has served the Eppley well in the succeeding years.

That expanded capacity enabled the airport to accommodate major new needs for heightened security in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, for example.

Any airport faces considerable challenges, including rising fuel costs, competition among airports and the occasional jolts to passenger demands (such as the 2001 terrorist attacks and the recession). Airports earn much of their revenues by charging fees, but it’s a delicate matter in terms of an airport’s bottom line, since increasing the fees puts upward pressure on air fares.

A look at Omaha’s airport history provides particular reason to appreciate the businesslike way in which Eppley is run. In the mid-20th century, there was no Omaha airport authority — the airport was operated by the city government and used tax dollars to cover expenses. It was a recipe for ongoing argument and indecision.

Voters turned down revenue bond proposals for the airport three times running, and by the late 1950s Omahans were hotly divided about the best way to manage the facility.

The solution came when the City Council voted to create an appointed airport authority, removing airport operations from government control. Eppley obtained a $2.5 million revenue board, opened a new terminal in 1961 and set the course for operating thereafter in a businesslike manner. It was a landmark step forward for Omaha.

That spirit of practicality is reflected today in the airport authority’s new 20-year plan. Omaha should be well served if Eppley’s leaders continue that important tradition.

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