Despite years of decline in passenger counts, Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport plans to move forward with an $8 million expansion project to reclaim its unique role in the local economy.
The airport, which opened in August 2004, more than doubled the number of annual passengers it served in its first five years of service — from 94,000 in 2004 to 200,000 in 2009. However, enplanement numbers have decreased by 12 percent or more every year since.
In spite of the doom and gloom, local business and political leaders believe having a state-of-the-art airport is essential to bringing new business to the city — even at a heavy cost to the taxpayer.
More than 90 percent of the airport expansion project is funded by federal grants.
If the city approves the project, Killeen will match the funds using $646,992 generated from local passenger facility charges, which are paid by each passenger who flies out of Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport.
The proposed expansion includes new storage space, a new rental car counter, larger waiting areas and new checked-baggage facilities, which airport personnel said can reach capacity during peak travel times.
In concert with these renovations, airport administration wants to raise airport landing fees, parking fees and rates for hangar rentals.
“While we are not pleased about the decline in enplanements, we believe this to be the opportune time to embark upon a project of this nature,” said John Sutton, airport executive director.
“Expansion in these areas should be sufficient to see us through the next 10 to 15 years of growth.”
‘Front door’ to Killeen
Although Killeen’s airport is a city-run entity, it does not draw money directly from the general fund, Sutton said. Most funding comes through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration.
City funds are filtered through the Killeen Economic Development Corporation, which has invested millions of dollars in the airport during the past nine years, commissioning projects to lure companies into the area.
“To a large extent, the airport has been the front door to the community for investors,” said John Crutchfield, president of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce.
“It is hard to maintain the status quo at an airport because if you don’t have an action plan to improve it, you are going to be sliding backwards.”
The Killeen Economic Development Corporation, which receives more than half of its funding from the city, gives $300,000 each year to a private consultant for airport advertising.
Crutchfield, who oversees the Killeen EDC, said the money funds research in the local market and pays for television ads, billboards and mailed advertising.
“There are people in this community who do not know there is an airport,” Crutchfield said, referring to the influx of new soldiers at Fort Hood.
“It is a constant re-education process.”
Over the last nine years, the Killeen EDC has invested $1.5 million in engineering and environmental assessments for a second runway.
Crutchfield said the airport may not have enough traffic to qualify for federal funding for the second runway, but negotiations with Army commanders have generated a potential cost-sharing deal.
“From a community perspective, we felt the need to develop some redundancy in our landing capabilities,” Crutchfield said. “We wanted to look to diversify our mission.”
Benefits of the second runway go beyond shorter waiting times on the tarmac, Crutchfield said.
It would create space for potential air traffic from the Air Force and it would provide an alternative landing strip if a plane becomes disabled on the runway.
“You know over time that at some point you are going to have an incident that will shut down your airport,” Crutchfield said. “There is concern and there are liabilities.”
The airport is capitalizing on its role as the transportation hub for thousands of Fort Hood families and, in the competitive world of regional air service, that centers on accommodating airlines.
“(The airlines) can pull out when ever they want to pull out,” Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lower said. “If we don’t have those facilities, we may miss out.”