Walmart plans at Griffiss not ready to take flight

Published Nov 28, 2017 at 4:00pm

Walmart’s plans to use Griffiss International Airport as a test site for drone delivery service have flown into turbulence and are up in the air.

The giant international retailer has yet to set up shop in a hangar despite initial expectations that the work would start this past summer.

As Walmart and the county airport were nearing a successful landing of an agreement on a lease for a 28,000-square-foot hangar, shifts occurred at the retailer that had an impact on the plan to conduct research and perform tests on its drone, or unmanned aerial system, delivery system at the county airport.

“Walmart is going through leadership restructuring,” county Aviation Commissioner Russell Stark told members of the Board of Legislators Airport Committee earlier this month.

On July 12, the legislature approved a lease for a nose dock hangar and research services-testing agreement between the Department of Aviation and Walmart. The start date for both was Aug. 1. The building lease was for one year at a cost of $84,000, plus options for nine one-year extensions with annual 3 percent escalators in the rent. The testing agreement was for two years at a total of nearly $1.7 million.

Flight hours were to include 12 flight days a month for six hours a day.

Walmart then came back to the county and requested that the start dates on the agreements be pushed back two months. The legislators approved the amended Nov. 1 start date at their Oct.11 meeting. All other terms remained the same.

Despite the later start date, Walmart still hasn’t touched down at Griffiss. The company neither signed nor returned either the original lease and testing agreement or the modified ones, according to Amanda Cortese, special assistant county attorney.

Stark says the county will reach out Walmart to discuss the company’s interest in the Griffiss project going forward once it knows who the right people are as the restructuring is completed.

“I hope. I really do,” said Stark Monday when asked if Walmart might be testing drones at the airport next year.

“It’s business,” he said of the corporate changes that has grounded the retailer’s arrival so far at Griffiss.

Griffiss was designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a drone test site in 2013. The goal is to figure out how commercial drones can safely operate in the air alongside piloted aircraft.

Walmart’s choice of the Griffiss test site was seen as a plus in furthering its reputation as a base of operations for testing and developing unmanned aerial system technology in the burgeoning
industry.