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Airport opening delayed to end of Jan.
Could partially reopen within the next week
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Weather continues to wreak havoc on Covington Municipal Airport construction and officials now hope the airport will be fully open by Jan. 25.

Runway construction is completed, but the apron — the area where aircraft are usually parked and loaded — still has to be paved. Asphalt can’t be laid when the temperature is below 45 degrees, which has been a common occurrence.

The airport has been closed since Sept. 21, because of a more than $5 million rehabilitation project, including milling and re-paving the runway, rehabbing the taxiway, repaving the apron and moving the fuel farms. Construction was supposed to be finished by Nov. 21, but rain and cold weather have led to the expected two-month delay.

Members from the city, the Georgia Department of Transportation, project manager PBS&J, Pittman Construction and airport operator Dixie Jet met Friday afternoon to discuss the possibility of opening the airport partially.

City Manager Steve Horton said the involved parties hope to have the airport open for partial, day-time operations by the middle of next week, even without paving the apron.

He said the plan would be to tow planes to and from the runway and their hangars, fuel the planes by truck since the fuel farm would be inaccessible, and use the finished taxiway as an apron.

Right now no operations can take place because there is a 3-inch drop-off between the runway and the rest of the airport. The maximum drop-off allowed by the GDOT is 1.5 inches. One plan is to put sod around the runway to lessen the drop-off. The parties will meet again next Wednesday to discuss progress and future construction.

The airport could only be open during daylight, because electrical work still has to be finished and the lights are not activated. Horton said if the weather

is uncooperative the Jan. 25 could be moved back again.

Dixie Jet Manager Rusty Anglin said the company lost half a million dollars in gross revenue in 2009 compared to 2008.

"Some of the loss was due to the economy, but the shot down has been very devastating. We had funds set aside for two months of closure, and now, it’s been almost four months. We’ve had employees laid off for 6 months now," Anglin said.

Dixie Jet has a small amount of rent money coming, but neither he nor Owner Bob Riddell have been paid during the closing. Riddell said previously that he had to take out loans to keep the airport operating during the down economy, but Anglin said he advised him not to take out any more loans at this time.

Anglin said there is nothing that can be done now about the delays, but he still feels the construction should have started earlier. Construction was originally scheduled for July, but delays in the approval of construction plans pushed the construction start date to late September.

In other airport news, Anglin said Dixie Jet was in favor of the proposed airport authority. He looked over the proposed powers and duties document and said it looked straight forward.

"If they put the right people on it with knowledge of aviation it will be a great thing for us," he said.

Emory Geiger, chairperson of the Gwinnett County Airport Authority, who also co-owns a hangar at the Covington airport, also reviewed the document. He said the key to an authority is to have a balance of power between the authority and the city council.

"The document as drawn conveys full powers and duties to the authority and, in and of itself, leaves little oversight to the Mayor and City Council (with the single exception of resolving conflicts of interest with authority members)," Geiger wrote in an email. "I would be curious to know if there will be any type of additional agreements between the Authority and the City, such as a Management Agreement that would specify approval requirements for items such as long-term ground leases and commitments, additional staffing details, etc."

More details about the authority will be determined if, and after, the authority is formed by the Georgia General Assembly. On Jan. 4, the city council approved sending a resolution to the state legislature asking them to form an authority. Legislation forming the authority is expected to be passed this session.

In addition to the authority, the council also approved a new Capital Improvement Program for the airport which plans future construction projects from 2010 through 2015. The city plans to do around $3 million of airport work in 2010, with $1.77 million coming from the local budget. The rest would come from the federal and state governments.

The biggest projects planned are the environmental assessment, engineering design and construction of a new apron and terminal building on the south end of the airport near Nisshinbo. The terminal building would cost nearly $1.6 million, but the city is applying for grants for the building. Another important project would be the installation of a localizer/glidescope, which is a key navigational instrument for pilots.

Besides the new projects, the city is also asking the federal government to reimburse the city for $5.4 million for land previously purchased by the city for the airport.

Over the next five years the airport CIP calls for more than $30 million in new projects and reimbursements, with only $2.3 million coming from out of the city’s pocket.