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Commuter travel may be future of Barrow facility

WINDER

There's an adage among pilots: the most dangerous thing about flying is driving to the airport.

From Winder, it's an hour and a half to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Travelers make the trip because flying directly from Winder to London just isn't a possibility.

Las Vegas is far-fetched, too. But maybe someday, catching a commuter flight to Charlotte, N.C., won't be out of the question.

In fact, it may be the future of the small airport.

As Barrow County and the region continue to add residents, the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport is looking for ways to profit from the growth. The airport authority has just hired a new director, they're adding another runway and a 25-year airport master plan is in the works.

While Boeing 747 airplanes will never land off Pickle Simon Road, more corporate air traffic and commuter flights could well find a base at the county airport.

Sammy Everett, the authority's chairman, sees the airport's corporate customers as its future.

"U.S. Air flies out of Athens and connects to Charlotte," he said. "It would benefit the business people and the community, they wouldn't have to drive to Hartsfield."

Installing a new Instrument Landing System is among the first steps the authority is taking to make the airport safer for landings, and help pilots fly into Winder even in bad weather. The system will make the airport more usable, Everett said, and that and a longer runway - eventually, the master plan calls for it to be 7,000 feet, 1,500 feet longer than it is now - will mean bigger aircraft and more corporate jets.

Growth at the airport is not confined to inside its gates. County commissioners recognize the airport area as one of the gateways into Barrow County and want to focus on bringing businesses that would benefit people who fly.

Commission Chairman Doug Garrison said he thinks the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport and the surrounding area have the chance to carve out a niche in terms of services at the airport and outside opportunities.

"I believe it has the potential to be a lot like Gwinnett's," Garrison said. "They've got some good plans. I want to see it grow and develop."

A proposed Athens-to-Atlanta rail line would make it easier for commuters to fly out of Winder, Garrison said, and help growth along the corridor.

But there are some concerns about where the airport is headed. Garrison said he has received some complaints about noise when nearby residents learned about the planned runway expansion, and District 6 Commissioner David Dyer has consistently questioned whether the airport is financially viable, and how long the commission is willing to support it.

Dyer said since he became a commissioner four years ago, the airport has spent more money than it has brought in. The county pays the salaries for airport employees, but Everett said the operation is otherwise self-sufficient. He hopes more growth, such as a recent decision to build more T-hangars, will bring in enough money to allow the airport to function without any financial help from Barrow.

Dyer does see the airport as a possible economic benefit for the county, but wants to make sure county residents are in favor of its expansion before taxpayer dollars are spent to keep it running.

"Where's the value? People need to let us know," he said. "Everyone would like to see it be successful. ... Right now, it's going through growing pains."

Glen Boyd, the newly hired airport director, called the airport a gem in Barrow County's crown. The Northeast Georgia Regional Airport is among the strongest small-airplane airports in the area, he said, and would operate wonderfully as a node on the decentralized travel network.

"Hartsfield's always going to be a hub, a major hub," he said. "If you're going to Europe, for instance, you'll clearly have to go through Hartsfield. There will always be a need for larger airports. But you need smaller airports as well. That's the beauty of smaller airports like Winder ... there's a very short surface travel time."

For now, Boyd said, he just wants to maintain the status quo while he acclimates himself to the airport's workings. But growth is coming to the airport, as it has to Barrow County, and people involved in its operations are rushing to keep up.

At an Airport Authority meeting last month, members voted to increase the rent for hangars by 10 percent for the first time in a year and a half. Ground lease rates also went up, as did the cost for the Winder-based National Guard unit to use the airport.

Garrison contended that the county should have focused on the airport long before now, but said he is pleased that it is finally being looked at as a gateway and a way to stimulate economic growth.

But with all the talk of the airport's commuter future - it has a place in the 25-year master plan, though Everett said it will come long before then - the heart and soul of the operation remains its small planes.

"Don't look for the big boys to be here," Garrison said. "There's no plan for Delta to start flying in and out."