Environmental assessment may ready Oneida County to keep seeking air service at Griffiss

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Oneida County has received a draft environmental assessment of building a new passenger terminal at Griffiss International Airport, a procedural step to prepare for luring scheduled airline service of the kind the county hasn’t had since 2002.

The assessment was written by consultant C&S Engineers of Buffalo. It was commissioned in accordance with environmental law requiring review of the impacts of certain decisions by federal agencies. In this case, it would be the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of a commercial passenger terminal.

It’s the latest step in efforts to return commercial scheduled service, which ended after the county lost federal subsidized essential air service at the former county airport in Whitestown in 2002. Since then, efforts turned to Griffiss, the former Air Force base that was shut as a military installation in 1995 but which still has a nearly mile-and-a-half runway and a FAA control tower.

The county had proposed expanding the general-aviation terminal — which services private and charter planes and has a Customs inspector for international flights — for scheduled airlines but has since moved toward building a separate passenger terminal. That’s now the preferred alternative based on a plan developed in 2016 by consultant Sixel Consulting of Eugene, Oregon, working with Passero Associates of Albany, who assessed potential demand by examining a database of recent airline ticket purchases in Oneida, Herkimer and parts of Madison, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Montgomery, Oswego, Hamilton, and Fulton counties.

The county’s preferred alternative now is a separate terminal for commercial passengers with a new access drive from Hangar Road, a jet boarding bridge, a new parking lot, and associated rehab of existing parking and related landscaping, utilities and infrastructure. The county would then ask the FAA to amend its airport operating certificate to the commercial airline type.

The 2016 study estimated the airport could support two forms of service: two departures and arrivals daily between Griffiss and the major hub of Philadelphia, and two weekly departures and arrivals of a low-cost carrier that specializes in Florida vacation travel, such as to Orlando. Certain Florida cities were the biggest destinations of passengers in the survey of airline ticket buyers in the region.

The consultants estimated the amount of traffic generated from the Griffiss catchment area equated to 819,443 passengers per year.

The Sixel-Passero study included some discouraging data reflecting the highly competitive airline industry. The two airports that now draw most Oneida County airline passengers, Syracuse and Albany, have seen available seat miles decline 12 and 10 percent respectively in 10 years as several major carriers merged, the consultant noted.

Sixel and Passero also noted that many cities have to take on some of the risk of service from airlines, such as guaranteeing minimum revenue, subsidizing marketing or paying for some infrastructure and equipment.

The county’s net budget for the airport is about $2.9 million in 2019.

The county is taking comments on the environmental assessment through 4:30 p.m. Jan. 28. It’s online at www.ocgov.net and hard copies are available during regular business hours at the airport, 600 Hangar Road, Suite 223, in Rome, and at the Jervis Public Library information desk, 613 N. Washington St. in Rome. Written comments may be sent to Gayle McKee, Senior Project Planner, C&S Engineers, 141 Elm St., Suite 100, Buffalo, NY 14203, or by email to gmckee@cscos.com.

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