As travelers rush to catch planes for the holiday season, the municipal airport in Lebanon looks less busy than its competitors in Burlington and Manchester.
Ten years ago, the Lebanon Airport hosted three airlines and moved 60,000 passengers a year. Now it’s trying to log just 10,000 departures so it can get a federal grant to improve itself.
A number of private planes use this airport, but the only commercial airline taking off from Lebanon these days is Cape Air, which serves parts of New England, the Caribbean, Florida, New York, the Midwest, and Micronesia.
For the month of December, Cape Air’s two Lebanon routes, to Boston or White Plains, New York, with free limo to Manhattan, will be cheaper than usual.
Instead of the normal $130, a round-trip to Boston is about $100. The round-trip New York fare is now even more deeply discounted. It will cost about $160, not the usual $320. Those sale prices are aimed at bumping up passenger travel just enough to qualify the airport for a pile of federal money. Rick Dymont is airport manager. He says the airport and Cape Air have come very close to that important goal-10,000 departures in 2012.
"If we do that, the amount of money the airport gets to use for itself every year increases from roughly $150,000 to a $1 million. So with $1 million a year, we will be able to do this safety project and many others much more quickly," Dymont said.
The safety project Dymont is talking about would bring three runways into compliance with FAA guidelines, adding a safety zone of at least 1,000 feet beyond the runway. Three out of four of Lebanon’s runways now have less than 300 feet beyond the end.
Dymont says 90 percent of the cost of these changes would come from the FAA-not through taxes, but through user fees. Five percent would come from New Hampshire and the other 5 percent would come from the city of Lebanon. He concedes that there have been negative comments about cost, wetlands, tree cutting, and potential noise problems. But he is convinced the improvements are needed, just to maintain the small share of the travel market the airport now has.
"But the airport would pay the debt service of the bond. We’d expect that and that’s what we project to if that occurs. There’d be basically zero cost to the city," Dymont explained. So in the airport’s view, the city is getting millions of dollars of improvements at a city facility at zero-minimal-zero cost."
Nevertheless, the environmental assessment is attracting some opposition at public meetings and in letters to the editor. The Lebanon City Council will decide whether to support the plan in early February. Another big unknown-whether FAA budget cuts triggered by congressional attempts to control the deficit would affect the airport’s only commercial carrier, Cape Air.