With projections that airport passenger traffic and operations will continue to grow, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) gave the green light last week for development of a new 20-year master plan. Besides, the FAA requires the airport to have a master plan.
RIAC senior vice president and chief infrastructure officer Christine Vitt told the board the aim of the plan is for the airport to prepare for changes in the terminal, road network, cargo facilities and support facilities in response to growth projections. This road map to the future will be developed with the assistance of workshops, meetings with a technical advisory committee and two public meetings.
The last master plan drafted in 2002 was to take Green Airport through 2022. A lot has happened since then, much of it unpredictable.
In the late ’90s, with its new terminal and Southwest Airlines introducing discount airfares to the region, Green was one of the country’s fastest growing airports. But after September 11, 2001, the airline industry took a hit. It was hit even harder by the Great Recession that put passenger traffic and many airlines in a tailspin. Green has yet to attain the apex of 5.7 million passengers of 2005. Last year, 4.3 million passengers passed through Green, an increase of 360,398, or 9.15 percent from 2017.
Since the last master plan, the issue of runway expansion that at one time included a proposal for parallel 10,000-foot runways has been resolved. Requiring the reconfiguration of Main Avenue, relocation of Winslow Park playing fields and the acquisition of homes and businesses, Runway 5-23 was lengthened to 8,700 feet. The longer runway gives airlines the opportunity to offer nonstop flights to the west coast, although that hasn’t happened yet.
Projections being used for the plan suggest that growth at Green won’t happen as quickly as some would like.
Reversing passenger decline and surpassing the 5.7 million passengers has been a goal for RIAC presidents and CEOs. Since his arrival in October 2016, Iftikhar Ahmad, RIAC president and CEO, has aggressively recruited airlines and expanded service to Green, including international service to Canada, the Caribbean, Ireland, Scotland and Norway and low fare domestic flights. Not all of the new service has stayed. In December passenger traffic at Green took a dip of 10.38 percent from December 2017.
Yet the long view is for growth.
According to the WSP analysis, Green will see a 5.3 percent annual growth in passenger traffic and 1.5 percent increase in operations between 2017 and 2022. Longer-range WSP projects over the 20 years from 2017 to 2037 passenger traffic will grow by 3.2 percent and operations by 1 percent a year.
With projections in place, Vitt told the board, “We feel we’re in a good place to take the next step to completion.”
Citizen and longtime observer of airport operations Richard Langseth, who attended the board meeting, thinks the short-term traffic projections are understated given the construction going to take place at Boston’s Logan Airport.
“I think they’re wrong,” he said, “given the re-do at Logan over the next three years,” he said.
But while Green may see a bump in traffic from people looking to escape the confusion at Logan, Langseth doesn’t see it sticking. That was the case after the “Big Dig” road tunnel project was completed in Boston in 2007, when many passengers returned to Logan for low fares.
“In the long run it’s [an annual growth rate of 3.2 percent] a stretch. There are only so many people who fly,” he said.
Reached Tuesday, Vitt and Daniel Porter, who works in RIAC planning, countered that construction is always happening at Logan. Porter said Green would be “tracking” traffic and could adjust the plan to take into account increased traffic.
Updating the master plan dates back to 2016 when RIAC started working with C&S Engineering Inc. as the lead consultant. Vitt said the work got off to a slow start, and it wasn’t until Ahmad had his leadership team in place that it went into “fast gear.”
As incremental tasks in the process were less than $100,000, Vitt explained, the contract did not reach the level of board approval until last week. The board approved an additional $844,000 to complete the master plan for a total of $1.32 million. Vitt said the master plan is expected to be completed this September.
While the Federal Aviation Administration customarily funds master plans, RIAC has chosen to play for the plan.
Vitt told the board the plan includes an expanded public outreach as part of the process. She said “informal sessions” or public workshops would be held during weekday evenings. One would be held south of the airport and the second to the north. It’s a process Langseth endorses.
“I think these people really, really need to reach out to the community,” he said.
Vitt sees that happening.
“I look forward to working with the community and defining the next 20 years,” she said.
Aspects of the plan will include an assessment of RIAC’s current financial condition and estimate of financial capacity; development of a capital improvement program; cost estimates; an airport layout plan; implementation schedule and stakeholder and public involvement with meetings with airport tenants, other agencies, the city and the public.