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Airports summer closures causing anxiety for some business owners
2013/1/10 8:49:53

The prospect of having the main runway at Billings Logan International Airport closed for six weekends this summer has Ron Kindsfather worried.

Most of the people who use his business, Total Transportation, are from out of town and fly into Billings on the weekend, he said. He already has two six-day bus tours scheduled for July and August, and hes not sure yet how that is going to work, or whether his clients will simply cancel their plans.

He said other people who rely on airport connections during the busy summer tourist season are similarly apprehensive.

"None of us know exactly what the outcomes going to be," he said.

Wedding planner Patricia Clark said the closures will have a big impact on weddings, class reunions and family reunions and on tourism in general. 

"Its going to impact hotels and motels, and it will impact people planning destination weddings," she said.

Even so, Clark said, she understands the need for closing the main runway to accommodate a reconstruction project, and she was satisfied with the explanation she got when she called the airport.

"The gentleman I spoke with at the airport was just wonderful," she said.

That was Kevin Ploehn, assistant aviation director at the city-owned airport. Ploehn said that though he sympathizes with business owners who will suffer as a result of the closures, the weekend shutdowns were chosen to minimize effects of the construction project.

In 1998, when the airport last paved the main runway — the only one big enough for commercial airliners and the big freight carriers — the shutdown lasted one weekend. But that was only because the runway was closed at nights while the old asphalt was being milled off, then opened again during the day.

Once the entire 10,518-foot runway was milled, the paving was accomplished in a single weekend.

In the wake of an airliner crash in Lexington, Ky., that happened during runway construction, Ploehn said, "theyve just clamped down on construction at airports."

The Federal Aviation Administration no longer allows the use of runways that are not clearly striped and marked. That means you have to mill off the old asphalt, repave the runway and get it repainted before it can be reopened.

This summer, the runway will be reconstructed in segments and the main runway will be closed from 9 a.m. on Friday to 6 p.m. on Sunday on the weekends of July 12-14, July 19-21, July 26-28, Aug. 2-4, Aug. 9-11 and Aug. 16-18.

Ploehn said the paving has to be done during warm or hot weather, and weekends are the slowest days at the airport year-round.

At this point, Ploehn said, the airport is just trying to get the word out so that people can plan accordingly — either by extending their trips by a day or two or by using airports in Bozeman or Cody, Wyo., if they have to arrive or depart on a weekend.

Jennifer Mercer, director of Billings Depot Inc., said weddings are booked at the depot for almost every weekend this summer. Although most people whom they inform of the planned closures are incredulous — "The general reaction is, are you kidding?" — giving notice seems to be sufficient.

"Were just rolling with the punches like everyone else," she said.

Clark, the wedding planner, said getting the word out is the most important consideration now. She and other people involved with events and tours have been trying to do that, she said, and there will be more opportunities at wedding fairs.

John Brewer, director of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, said there was some concern about the closures when they were announced last fall, but members of the Yellowstone County Lodging Association were satisfied after hearing a presentation from airport director Tom Binford.

"We have not heard any negative feedback," Brewer said.

The $9 million project is being funded by an $8.1 million grant from the FAA and a $900,000 local match from airport user fees and passenger facility charges.

Ploehn said the airport has asked the airlines to increase their carrying capacity on weekdays during the weekend closures, on the assumption that passenger numbers will stay relatively stable but will be squeezed into four days instead of seven.

Nothing has been worked out yet, but Ploehn is confident the airlines will adapt.

"If there are seats to fill, theyll provide the planes," he said.

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