BECKLEY — Bipartisan legislation steered through the Senate translates into some $2 million for Raleigh County Memorial Airport for a two-year extension of the Essential Air Service program.

In fact, airport Manager Tom Cochran pointed out Wednesday, bids are being taken through April 19 through the Department of Transportation.

The program was launched after the airline industry was deregulated during the Reagan administration and came through the efforts of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., as a means of beefing up flight service at small, rural airports.

On another matter, the Beckley airport is probably about two years away from installing an air traffic control tower, since the facility is still enmeshed in studies and all the paperwork that attends to them.

Under the guidance of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the Senate this week agreed to increase the EAS funding by $48 million, giving it a total of $175 million annually. At the same time, the measure also sets aside $35 million a year for the Small Community Air Service Development Program.

Cochran said both that and the EAS have given the airport valuable dividends.

Colgan Air holds the existing contract at the Beckley airport, one that has proven beneficial to local commuters, Cochran said.

“It is something for rural airports like we are,” he said of the EAS.

“It gives us certainly a great connection into Washington for international traffic, and their coach here is United, which is also a major carrier out of Washington. It’s a good connection to get you anywhere in the world you need to go.

“It’s not just for the in and out of passengers, but it’s a good economic development opportunity that we have that service and that kind of contract. When a lot of marketable businesses come here to look, one of the first questions they ask me is, ‘Do you have air service and where to?’ The connections we now have are good.”

With the plane based in Beckley, a commuter can board it at 6 a.m., fly into the nation’s capital and be headed back home on a 2 p.m. flight.

Under the development program, Cochran said his airport and Greenbrier Valley near Lewisburg partnered three years ago and by working in tandem managed to market air service at both facilities.

Whether the two will continue this strategy isn’t known, but the Beckley facility hopes to land some grant money that is distributed to some 40 airports around the nation.

“Our (EAS) contract, after it’s all completed, should start the first of August and puts us in kind of the right time frame to be going after other money to help market them.”

New financial incentives are embedded in the EAS contracts to encourage carriers to offer improved service with the prospects of long-term contracts if they are proven to be in the public’s interest, Rockefeller said.

“Everyone, everywhere, needs to be connected to our national aviation system,” the senator said.

“In West Virginia alone, aviation represents billions of the state’s gross domestic product, and directly and indirectly employs tens of thousands of people. That’s why I’ve worked for years to help expand and develop West Virginia’s air transportation infrastructures — so that our state and every community can experience the economic benefits.”

Cochran isn’t sure if his airport will be working with the Lewisburg facility on the marketing phase, saying, “They’re doing big things with the casino (at The Greenbrier). We may have to do something as a standalone, which we can do.”

A proposed tower looms as a major component of the proposed Boy Scouts of America national center in Fayette County to provide the organization the support it needs when thousands begin arriving for various activities there, Cochran said.

“We’re just doing the studies and the paperwork, and the Federal Aviation Administration is giving us a grant for an update of our master plan,” he said.

“That has to be included in that. It’s a long, drawn-out process. It would be a couple of years, probably, if we are selected, before we would see anything happen. It is in our future planning of the airport, definitely.”

By Mannix Porterfield Register-Herald Reporter

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March 24, 2010