Slow down airport change

Published 11:09 pm Friday, March 4, 2011

The Suffolk City Council has a plan to make the city’s airport profitable after at least 10 years of the facility operating in the red.

If that’s truly what is behind a proposal put forward by the city’s administration this week that calls for disbanding the airport commission, Suffolk taxpayers have reason to look positively on the plan. After all, there aren’t many opportunities for the city to make money that don’t involve taking it out of taxpayers’ pockets.

But there is reason to wonder about what exactly city administrators hope to achieve with the plan, and there are questions that need to be answered before the City Council gives its seal of approval.

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First, one wonders why the airport has lost money under the direction of the commission. The City Council appoints members of that commission, who in turn advise the airport manager, a city employee. Clearly neither the City Council nor the administration has direct control over the facility’s profitability, but the council members, at least, should be able to exert some control over the people they appoint to the commission, applying pressure to encourage decisions that will drive the facility toward profitability.

Why haven’t they watched the situation at the airport more closely? Why have they allowed operations there to languish in the red for so long? Under the rules of operation for the airport commission, close oversight by the City Council — and open lines of communication — would be necessary to achieve the most efficient and profitable operation. Without those components, the commission, which is unable to borrow its own money to make business-generating improvements, would be helpless to improve the airport’s situation on its own.

Which brings up another question: Why does it appear that airport commissioners were kept in the dark about the disbandment plan? Unless that plan represented a power grab by the administration, what purpose would have been served by keeping secret the possibility that the city might want to change the way it administers the airport?

And finally, considering the widespread acceptance and success of the airport authority structure of administration, why do Suffolk administrators not seem interested in trying that arrangement here? Under the authority structure, appointed airport administrators would have the power to borrow money, making them more responsive to changing market conditions and ultimately more responsible for the decisions they made. The structure works at local municipally owned airports including Chesapeake Regional and Norfolk International. There should at least be some discussion of instituting it in Suffolk.

Whatever the administration’s reasons for springing the idea of disbanding the airport commission on the public this week, City Council members should put the brakes on the process until the matter can be studied carefully. And only after concluding that there is no other way the airport can be profitable should they consider putting its operation under the purview of a city agency, a solution that would be unique in Hampton Roads.