Passenger boarding levels at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport were down by almost 1,000 people in 2015, prompting discussion by the governing board about what it could do to enhance economic opportunities at the facility.
Airport Director Barbara McNally last week told members of the Lawton Metropolitan Area Airport Authority that the airport had 952 fewer enplanements in 2015 than it had the previous year, when figures are adjusted for non-scheduled flights. She said the shortfall could be due to flight changes made by the airport's carrier over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. On both holiday weekends, the airline cut the number of flights from Lawton to Dallas-Fort Worth and "that's reflected in the (enplanement) numbers," McNally said.
Total passenger numbers are important because federal funds allocated to airports are influenced by the number of passengers who depart on flights, and fewer passengers means fewer federal dollars coming into the airport for upgrades, such as a series of renovations planned for Lawton's terminal.
That budget reality is part of the reason McNally sought and received permission to attend an air service development conference in Arizona in late March by Mead and Hunt, air consultants who have done work for the airport and the Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce.
McNally said the conference would be a "great opportunity to find out what is happening in the airline world," explaining that representatives of six major airlines, including American, are slated to have representation at the conference. McNally said American's presence is important because the company is planning to retire old equipment and she is concerned about how the new replacement equipment will affect smaller markets such as Lawton.
Authority member David Madigan said the conference also will be an opportunity to engage with other airports about other opportunities to generate revenue so Lawton's airport will be less influenced by American Eagle changes. McNally noted that, under existing conditions, changes in American Eagle's flight schedule impact every business at the airport, which in turn impacts the airport's budget.
Authority member Sam Firman said such opportunities are worth exploring, explaining there are "a lot of things that come in airplanes that aren't passengers." Ward 1 Councilman Robert Morford, the council's representative on the airport authority, asked whether local officials had considered soliciting entities that conduct aviation and maintenance instruction, noting Lawton is ideally located with the weather needed to make such training feasible.
"Let's see what's out there," McNally said, adding that officials should "think outside the box."
She acknowledged the airport has land on its north and south sides that is adjacent to the runway, taxiways and aprons, but said many of those looking for business opportunities near airports want space that is ready for immediate occupancy.
As plans are made for additional economic opportunities, airport officials also are trying to finalize design plans for a new fire station on the north end of the runway and for a new snow removal equipment and maintenance building that will allow the airport to move its maintenance functions out of the terminal, freeing that space for a modernized baggage handling area. A design workshop that was to allow participants to finalize design plans was held this week and airport officials plan to present their fire station proposal to the full council in February.
That facility, designated Fire Station No. 2, holds the air rescue firefighters who respond to incidents at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, as well as firefighters who cover incidents in south Lawton. Airport and city officials have said the facility has severe structural problems and should be replaced. While plans haven't been finalized, McNally said designers have found a way to preserve the station's requirement for security-only access to airport facilities, while keeping part of the station open to the public.
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