The Springfield-Branson Regional Airport is under consideration to become a standalone airport authority after City Council members this month heard a final report from an appointed task force.
“It was not a quick decision,” said Jim Anderson, co-chair of the nine-member task force and member of the Springfield-Branson National Airport board. “It was made with homework and due diligence.”
The Airport Task Force’s 16-page report, presented Dec. 4, recommends the airport change from a city department to a standalone regional airport authority with no reduction to employment pay or benefits. It currently operates as an enterprise fund department of the city.
If the switch is made, an Airport Authority Implementation Committee would be established to carry out the change in governance.
Anderson said becoming an airport authority would reduce red tape in operations. For instance, he said, airport leadership has to go through council for Federal Aviation Administration grants, but it would be streamlined as an independent authority.
“This debate in not unique to Springfield,” said Brian Weiler, Springfield-Branson National Airport director of aviation. “It’s happening all around the United States.”
The task force’s final report shows eight airports have transitioned from city or county governance to authority governance since 2000. None has switched back, the report noted.
“Universally, there was no downside in those airports that have an airport authority now,” Anderson said.
According to the report, 40 percent of the 100 busiest U.S. air carrier airports are operated by an airport authority.
“It sounded like there were enough reasons to consider to move forward with a more extensive study of how we would go about an authority,” City Councilman Richard Ollis said after reviewing the report.
Ollis said he wants to see some more details on the financial arrangement, the transition process and timing, if approved.
The airport currently operates without any tax support from the city, but it does pay $300,000 a year for city services in the legal and human resources departments, Weiler said.
The annual budget for the airport is $27.4 million, according to the proposed fiscal 2018-19 city budget.
The airport has an estimated annual economic impact of $500 million, Anderson said, and it just hit a 1 million-passenger goal on Dec. 6. Officials say passenger counts are up 40 percent over the last four years.
“We’re trying to plan for the future and trying to be responsive to a dynamic industry,” Anderson said. “We’re not trying to fix something that’s broken.”
On the horizon
The size of the Airport Authority Implementation Committee is yet to be determined, and Anderson guessed it would be fairly small.
“Ideally, I’d like to have a council member and airport member,” he said. “That’s the group that has to get into the details and specifics.”
While council will review the proposal during a Jan. 8 council luncheon, Ollis doesn’t think they’ll be ready to vote on the measure at the next scheduled meeting on Jan. 14. He said they need to hold a public hearing and time to study the details.
Members of the task force have been invited to the Jan. 8 luncheon to answer council’s questions.
If council approves the task force’s recommendations, Anderson said it may trigger changes in the city charter or state statute. He suspected the shortest time frame would be six to 12 months.
Springfield City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader said via email her department is reviewing the report to see if it would require a change to city charter.
“The city needs to be sure the legal implications of each recommendation is carefully vetted,” she said. “Once the law department has an opportunity to conduct a thorough legal review, we will provide legal advice to City Council on this issue.”
If approved, the 11-member airport board would be restructured, though Anderson said authority members would still get chosen by the city.
The recommendation would expand the scope of the board’s representation.
“People come from a wide area to the airport,” Anderson said. “It would be more representative of the region.”
Task force meetings
Airport officials have considered the change for a while.
An airport business plan was completed in September 2017 by Trillion Aviation, an airport consulting firm based in Austin, Texas.
With the business plan laying the foundation, the task force was assembled and first met on July 13.
During its meetings, the task force heard from local and regional airport officials, including Jim Johnson, director of the FAA’s Central Region Airports, and looked at models of peer airports and visited the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville. The Arkansas airport has been under airport authority control since 1990.
“The task force looked at many areas including concessions, fuel sales, new commercial vehicle regulations and improving business relations,” Weiler said.
During the second task force meeting, Kevin Foley, executive director of the Des Moines International Airport, spoke on the benefits he’s seen since his airport made the switch in 2011, according to the report.
Those benefits were quicker decisions, an easier ability to attract and retain employees, and a greater focus on aviation business decisions.
On Aug. 27, Mark VanLoh, CEO of the Tulsa International Airport, noted to the task force the increased competition for air service and the significance of private investment. The Tulsa airport has been under authority governance since 2013.
One of Weiler’s biggest worries is the impact on employees.
“We’ve gone out of our way to be transparent to our employees,” Weiler said. “They shouldn’t see any loss of pay or benefits.”
According to a Missouri Department of Transportation study, 40 businesses operate within the airport, including car rental agencies, and it has 2,000 employees.
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