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For LVIA, it’s sunnier skies, at last

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Things are finally taking off for Lehigh Valley International Airport.

Only four years ago, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which owns and operates LVIA in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, was saddled with $14 million in debt from a 1990s lawsuit. But in large part from the sale of land, the authority was able to dig out from its financial burden.

Its biggest coup was the $10 million sale two years ago of 260 acres in neighboring Allen Township to the Rockefeller Group for development of a FedEx Ground facility, now under construction.

The result is that today, airport officials are looking at ways to boost business at LVIA, operating without that financial albatross.

The past two years, the authority said, it has made strides in managing its finances, started long-delayed capital improvements, enhanced customer service and amenities and established partnerships to win state and county grants.

Charles Everett, executive director of the authority, arrived at the organization in 2011 as it was struggling to overcome its financial woes and began working with the authority’s board of governors.

“There were certain challenges,” Everett said. “We put together a strategic framework to guide us.”

He said goals focused on the authority’s financial stability, customer experience, organizational and employee culture and eliminating the judgment.

“We had to pay up and come up with a plan,” Everett said. “We sold real estate, we engaged a partner [The Rockefeller Group] and we also refinanced debt; that saved about $1 million annually.”

It’s been a significant two years of recovery, according to J. Michael Dowd, chairman of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority board of governors.

“The airport has moved from a mode of survival to success and opportunity,” he said. “I think that’s really the case.”

REVENUE INITIATIVES

The airport authority looked at all lease agreements to ensure it was collecting revenue and examined nonaeronautical sources of revenue, Everett said.

At one point, it was performing only ground-handling duties for Allegiant Air but now it also provides baggage, fueling and ticketing services for the air carrier so Allegiant doesn’t have to base people here, Everett said.

LVIA also performs cargo ground-handling for ATI, ABX and Atlas, Everett said.

Other revenue-building initiatives focus on the customer experience, such as its new children’s play area and nursing station for mothers, established through an advertising relationship with Lehigh Valley Health Network.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

The airport is looking for other ways to do more for comforting the customer, including installing water bottle fill stations in the terminal and offering therapy dogs as stress relievers for passengers before they board.

Also, by working with the Transportation Security Administration to implement the pre-check program, passengers can be checked in through the airport more efficiently.

“I think it’s all part of the bigger story we have to tell,” Everett said. “Our vision is to be the best air system in North America. We believe if we treat our employees right, they will treat our customers right.”

The airport provides training and other career development opportunities for employees.

CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS

At the end of last year, the airport authority approved a $57 million five-year capital plan.

At LVIA, these projects include pavement rehabilitation of Runway 6-24 and construction of a multimodal transportation center.

The Runway 6-24 project will take several years to complete, Everett said. The airport’s main runway, it has not been rehabilitated for almost 20 years.

Also, the authority wants to build a bulk hangar facility to house corporate jets and small aircraft, at a cost of about $10 million.

The multimodal center should be complete by August and will bring car rental spaces closer to the airport – just outside the door, Everett said.

The project also will bring inter-city bus service through Trans-Bridge and serve as a hub for Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority bus services, bringing more people into the airport.

FUNDING PARTNERS

Dowd said general aviation opportunities also exist at Braden Airpark in Forks Township and Queen City Airport in Allentown, both owned and operated by the authority.

Creating more opportunities for corporate aircraft at LVIA and hangars at Queen City also should help, he added.

Building partnerships with Northampton County and the state Department of Transportation to provide grants for capital improvements is a key part to the turnaround, according to the authority.

“Leadership has moved to, ‘How do we plan for the future?’ ” Dowd said.

By crafting a vision of what’s possible, it gives the airport authority something to focus on, he said.

CARGO TRAFFIC SOARS

In January, the airport authority said its passenger traffic at LVIA reached its highest level since 2013. The authority reported 688,505 passengers traveling through the airport in 2016, a 2.2 percent increase in traffic from 2015.

The past year, LVIA also saw a large increase in cargo flights, transporting 125.951 million pounds of cargo, 165 percent more than 2015, when it shipped 47.404 million pounds.

The increase in passenger traffic can be linked to Allegiant Air adding more seats to its Florida destinations. The cargo increase is attributable to having three additional cargo companies transporting freight, Everett said.

The significant increase is directly related to the airlines that carry freight for Amazon Prime routes.

FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE

The growth in air cargo at LVIA has created a strong foundation for the airport, Dowd said.

As long as the airport can provide the customer support for that, the authority sees that as a long-term goal.

And that fits nicely with one of the overall strategies for the airport as it looks ahead to what it hopes will be brighter skies.

“One of the hallmarks of what we do is being customer-focused,” Dowd said.

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