Burlington Airport Faces Challenges, But Looks To Future

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(Host) In 1920, $10,000 dollars and a cornfield were transformed into Vermont’s second airport. 

Ninety years later, Burlington International Airport has an operating budget of $16 million dollars and services the needs of 1.5 million arriving and departing annual passengers. 

As VPR’s Jane Lindholm reports, today the airport faces economic challenges while at the same time planning some serious future expansion.

(Lindholm) This past May, Moody’s Investment Services downgraded the airport’s long term bond rating to its lowest investment grade, Baa3. Moody’s cited several financial problems facing the airport, including how it services its debt, and uncertainties about how much cash was available to airport managers, since their money was pooled with other city departments, including the troubled Burlington Telecom.  Since then, the municipally-funded airport has addressed Moody’s concerns, according to Director of Aviation Brian Searles.

(Searles) "All of our cash has been separated, as they requested.  Our debt coverage ratio for the current fiscal year is in excess of what Moody’s requires.  We have submitted that information and are awaiting the results and we expect to be restored to a higher level."

(Lindholm) The airport has had to deal with significant changes in the airline industry since 9/11.  A the faltering economy over the past couple of years has led to declining ridership and the departure of AirTran just 18 months after the airline arrived.  But Searles says he believes when a strong economy returns, so will AirTran.

(Searles) They still have a presence at the airport.  We still maintain a conversation with them.  They’re non-committal because I think they’re having these conversations at several places but we do expect to see them back at some point.

(Lindholm) In fact, Searles is bullish about the airport‘s future too.  The airport recently released its master plan for the next 20 years, which includes the possibility of two new I-89 airport exits, an airport hotel, and a three-story terminal.  All of these plans are based on the idea that, despite current trends, ridership will double by 2030.

(Searles) "2009 was down from 2008 but 2009 was still the second busiest year in the history of the airport.  So we think the 2030 horizon of actually seeing 3 million passengers through the terminal every year instead of a million and a half is realistic."

(Lindholm) Most of these plans are in the early stages. But some expansion is already under way.  600 spaces are being added to the parking garage and a $21 million runway improvement project is under construction.

While awareness of the impact of air travel on the environment has increased and long-term future fuel resources are uncertain, Searles says he thinks the future is bright for BTV:

(Searles) "We bank on the fact that people in our service area, people around North America, want to travel.  They want to go long distances and cars are inadequate; rail service is not going to be the answer."

(Lindholm) For VPR News, I’m Jane Lindholm.

Burlington International Airport’s expansion plan (3776 kb)

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