Rutland airport wary of new security costs

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(Host) Officials at small, regional airports across the country say new federal safety requirements may prove so costly that many will have to shut down their commercial passenger service.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration will meet with regional airport officials from Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Rutland on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

VPR’s Nina Keck has more.

(Sound of airplane landing at Rutland airport.)

(Keck) At Rutland state airport a 19-seat passenger plane cuts its engines while a lone employee blocks its wheels. If this had been a larger corporate or charter flight with more than 30 passengers, airport officials would have called the Rutland Fire Department to have a truck and crew standing by. Because this was a smaller plane, that hasn’t been necessary. Until now.

After June 9, airports that service commercial passenger planes with as few as ten seats will have to begin complying with many of the same safety regulations that larger, urban airports have to follow. Tom Trudeau, who manages Rutland’s airport, says that means he’ll have to create a full time, on-site fire and rescue team at a cost of nearly $300,000 a year.

(Trudeau) “You don’t want to go against safety, that’s like going against God and country and Mom and apple pie. And safety is something we all want to hold paramount. But safety is expensive. And what we’d like to be able to do is provide an adequate level of safety for the size airport we are. So the rule has good intentions, it’s just going to be very difficult for small airports to comply.”

(Keck) If no funding is provided and no compromises offered, Trudeau says Rutland and many other small airports may have to cancel their passenger service. Tom Donahue, executive director of the Rutland Chamber of Commerce, says that will hurt the local economy. He says a 2002 economic impact study showed that Rutland’s airport and its passenger service affects some 240 jobs in Rutland County.

(Donahue) “We’re all working hard to make this a better place to do business. And every time you lose a significant opportunity for economic growth to the area, like this provides, it’s a real blow to the area. And we just can’t afford to take those steps backward.”

(Keck) Donahue, Trudeau and other Rutland area officials have been lobbying Vermont’s congressional delegation hard on this issue. The Federal Aviation Administration has provided a 120-day comment period to allow members of Congress to weigh in on the new regulations and Vermont lawmakers have been actively involved. But at this point, no changes have been made.

(Ben Castillano) “The FAA doesn’t sit here and say, what kind of regulations can we extend onto an airport operator or an airline right now? There usually has to be some good reasons why it needs to be done.”

(Keck) Ben Castillano works in the Airport Safety and Operations Division of the Federal Aviation Administration. He says a 1996 crash at a small airport in Quincy, Illinois that killed ten people pushed federal officials to reassess how smaller airports are regulated.

(Castillano) “When an aircraft accident occurs at an airport, there usually is an ensuing fire. That fire burns very fast. You cannot expect a downtown city fire department to respond in ten minutes and say, okay, we’ll put out the fire. It’s not like a house fire. It’s something that needs to be looked at and attended to immediately and that’s why we got into requiring airport rescue firefighting services at an airport.”

(Keck) Runway maintenance, lighting and a host of other issues are also covered under the new regulations. And Castillano says the FAA does have grant money available to help cover some potential expenses. He also points out that air carriers can apply for additional federal funding under the Essential Air Service program. That’s a program that subsidizes passenger service to rural, underserved airports.

(Castillano) “Funding wise, we’re not requiring millions and millions of dollars at an airport the size of Rutland. It’s what we consider to be basic safety requirements.”

(Keck) But Rutland Airport Manager Tom Trudeau says it might as well be millions. With an annual budget of about $400,000, adding another $300,000 a year for a fire and rescue crew will be nearly impossible. And, he points out, Rutland and many small airports already receive the maximum amount of funding allowed under the Essential Services Program.

Trudeau and airport administrators from Maine, New Hampshire and New York will voice their concerns with officials from the FAA on Wednesday in Augusta, Maine. Trudeau says they hope to come up with a more definitive interpretation of the new regulations – ones that will balance the safety needs of passengers while taking into account the realistic financial limitations of small airports.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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