The airport, a highway to here

By:  The Wenatchee World - Tracy Warner
Source: The Wenatchee World

Pangborn Memorial Airport, our interstate highway.

There is truth in that comparison. Port commissioners and others with some input into the way the airport is run will say that and mean it. Douglas Port Commissioner Mark Spurgeon repeated the statement just last week in the airport terminal as officials greeted Sen. Maria Cantwell, who had just arrived by car for a tour and to announce the airport had received a federal grant to promote its use and service.

Our interstate highway. Measured by volume alone, that metaphor is one, giant, infinitely elastic stretch of the truth. In 2012 the airport was used by an average of 271 passengers a day. Highway 2 in the Wenatchee Valley does that in around 25 minutes, on average, and as everyone knows it is not an interstate highway. Pangborn Memorial Airport was used by 98,970 passengers, to and from, in 2012. Skinny, hilly, slippery old Highway 2 beats that in less than a week.

Our interstate highway. Obviously traffic volume is not the point. The comparison of airport to four-lane highway is meant to emphasize the importance of connections. It had long been apparent that we live in a most beautiful valley that is sometimes difficult to reach by landed means. Geographic isolation has aesthetic advantages not always applicable to commerce and industry. As is often mentioned, Wenatchee-East Wenatchee is the only official metropolitan area in Washington not served by an interstate highway. If you travel by road this affects ease, convenience and reliability and raises the cost of moving goods and people in and out. We can do it, it’s just easier and cheaper elsewhere.

But, we have an airport. The Pangborn-is-our-interstate metaphor is still valid and valuable, because the airport is our doorway. It is a portal to the outside world. It is how people far away get here quickly. It constitutes critical transportation infrastructure. It makes us a destination. It allows businesses over there to do business over here. With an airport we are minutes away. Without it, we are hours or days away. Imagine how we might fare without it.

Said Cantwell, “It’s about businesses knowing they can grow jobs here and find incredible opportunities for markets and product development. Infrastructure shaped this valley, whether the investments in hydropower or the Great Northern Railroad, and now future investments are going to be supported by this runway right behind us.”

The federal grant announced by Cantwell, $200,000, comes through the Department of Transportation Small Community Air Service Development program. Airport Director Trent Moyers said the funds can be used both to promote existing air service, and attract new service. The grant partners — airport, port districts, Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce, Leavenworth Chamber, Chelan County Lodging Tax Advisory Committee — will meet soon to decide how best to spend it. The money can be spent to promote greater use of the current service provided by Horizon Air, through advertising or other means. If that air service is more fully utilized, said Moyers, that makes it more likely that Horizon may expand service or another air carrier could be enticed into the market. “We have good solid service as it is. We want to boost the numbers and get ridership,” said Moyers. “Using it to maximum potential, it shows support for service.” Studies show many people travel from Wentachee to and from the Southwest — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. The grant could be used to minimize the risk of an air carrier that might like to serve that market.

During her Pangborn stop Cantwell was given a brief tour of the ends of the runway. The north end is in the beginnings of being stretched to 7,000 feet at a cost of about $28 million. It is an expensive and agonizing process, but still crucial and inevitable if the airport is to be more useful and reliable, and more used. Yes, it is our interstate.