BLOUNTVILLE — Finishing touches are being put on the creation of an airport authority to govern Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Airport commissioners on Thursday approved a set of authority bylaws calling for no change in the number of commissioners or the rights of airport owners to appoint commissioners to the authority’s 12-member governing body.
What’s left to do, according to airport legal counsel Bill Bovender, includes sending an authority charter to the Tennessee secretary of state; having the new authority board adopt the bylaws; and then having the owners submit quitclaim deeds handing their ownership interests to the authority.
All throughout this process, two of the main arguments for having the authority have been taking liability off the backs of the owners and making the airport more nimble in acquiring federal grants.
Another key talking point is the authority will have eminent domain power much like a municipality.
TCRA was created by a contract, dated Oct. 24, 1935, among the cities of Bristol, Tenn., Johnson City, Kingsport and Sullivan County. That contract called for a 12-member commission to control and run the airport. Since then, Johnson City conveyed half of its interest to Washington County, and Bristol, Tenn., sold half of its interest to Bristol, Va.
The commission has operated much like a city council/city manager form of government. Airport commissioners appoint an executive director, who is responsible for the airport’s daily operations and overseeing all employees.
While the authority governing body may look and operate a lot like the old commission, TCRA will continue to be a regional entity.
“This (airport authority) will do away with one of the owners trying to take control of the airport,” Airport Commissioner Dan Mahoney of Johnson City observed during the commission meeting. “There are no reasons for the counties or the cities to think they can gain control of this airport.”
One significant change in the authority bylaws shows the governing body’s officers will serve a two-year instead of a three-year term. Those officers will have to be selected once the authority takes over.
When that day comes, the authority will inherit an airport operating in challenging economic times.
TCRA’s projected year-end operating budget calls for revenues of slightly more than $6 million and expenses topping $5.5 million.
Those revenues are running ahead of budget because of parking and rental car income being higher, and that trend indicates a return of business travelers, according to TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson.
While ridership in the current budget year is up slightly, Wilson is projecting a 7 percent decrease in travelers entirely due to the loss of American Eagle flights to Chicago.
“I thought we’d be down more when we lost American, but this shows the airport doing a good job,” Mahoney said while looking at Wilson’s budget figures. “I don’t understand why somebody doesn’t pick up that Chicago route. ... If fuel costs keep going down, people are going to be flying because you’re seeing some good fares going to a lot of places.”
Since fuel cost started escalating in 2005, the airline industry has been forced to make major changes, according to Wilson.
“Airlines have focused on reducing their operating cost by reducing the number of flights nationwide,” Wilson said. “Over the past five years, the United States airline industry has reduced the number of flights by over 10 percent. This has resulted in fewer flights at small and medium-sized airports.
“In responding to the decreased number of flights, airports have put significant efforts into reducing their operating expenses. Airline and passenger related revenue generates approximately 80 percent of Tri-Cities Regional Airport’s total operating budget.”
A looming challenge, Wilson indicated, is submitting a new rates and charges schedule to the airlines. TCRA’s landing fee revenues have not increased since 2008, he added.
“We are projecting a need to increase that rate,” Wilson told commissioners. “We don’t have an exact amount on that. We will be in a working process with our airline representatives through May and June to try to set that rate.”
TCRA is currently served by Delta Connection, US Airways Express and Allegiant Air.
The airport is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
For more about TCRA go to www.triflight.com.