My Turn: Airport needs an update

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2005

The opportunity to improve the Juneau International Airport will be before the voters on Oct. 4. Those of us familiar with the airport know that the increase in numbers of travelers is fast outstripping the capacity of this facility. The increase in passenger traffic has already surpassed the pre-9/11 totals and is growing every month. We have an abysmal baggage-handling system. The line at the ticket counter often extends past the entrance, into the north wing. The parking lot is crowded and exposed to the weather. Increased security has put further demands for already limited space. Much of this security activity takes place out of sight of the public, but affects the terminal space significantly.

Last year, the Airport Board directed that a committee, headed by George Davidson, be formed. It consisted of 18 members of the community and was charged with identifying needs and setting priorities for the airport. The current plan for terminal renovation is the result of that committee's hard work. Briefly, it involves additional baggage belts, more efficient passenger flow, concessions in the boarding area, covered parking and replacement of the north wing, which is almost 60 years old. The total project cost is almost $80 million, $20 million of which will come from the 1 percent sales tax. However, each of these local dollars will be matched by almost $3 from other sources including federal and state funds. It will bring into the community approximately $55 million. This means jobs.

While serving on the Airport Board I have often heard the complaint that Alaska Airlines has a monopoly in Juneau. "Why don't you guys get another air carrier?" If another carrier showed interest in serving Juneau today, we would have no place to put them. Airlines need counter space, office space, breakrooms, baggage storage area, the list goes on. As mentioned earlier, much of the terminal's activity happens behind the cinder blocks. While in the past we've had room for Delta, Wien and Mark Air, we don't have the room now. It's analogous to Glacier Highway adequately serving as the only road from the valley to downtown 30 years ago, but it couldn't possibly meet Juneau's automotive needs today. Nor can the airport terminal meet another carrier's needs today.

The Juneau International Airport operates as an enterprise fund and is required to be self-sustaining. The airport has an excellent track record of paying its own way. We are justifiably proud of that accomplishment and will continue to balance our budget after the renovations are complete. We will require no annual subsidy from local taxpayers to support this project. Revenues from tenants and users will continue to pay for the maintenance and operation of the improved terminal.

For the foreseeable future, the airport is the gateway to our capital city. Most legislators, lobbyists, and constituents come and go through the airport. Although I have no statistics, I suspect most of our residents rely the airport for a myriad of things: vacations, health travel, relative visits, business trips, mail, fresh food, etc. It is an extremely important asset to the community. It is the first and last thing visitors to Juneau see. Wouldn't we like to make a good first and last impression?

The airport has no glitz. It's a utility that serves Juneau. It's a place we want to get out of as soon as possible, whether coming or going. Most of us want to check the bags, get in the airplane and go. Get off the plane, get the bags and go. That's our goal too. If we can sweeten the stay with some amenities that's even better. A "yes" vote will improve efficiency, bring jobs and money to Juneau, and show some pride in our capital city. I urge the citizens of Juneau to vote "yes" on the airport.

• Ron Swanson is chairman of the Airport Board and has been a Juneau resident since 1969.

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