Lehigh's problems are similar to hat of other airports round the country: it has interested flyers but also fewer carriers, a lack of resources, and local financial challenges that seem too big to overcome.
The name Lehigh Valley International Airport suggests anyone can hop a flight there and touch down in a foreign country. Well, you can’t, but airport officials are intent on changing that.
The cash-strapped Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority is trying to raise several million dollars to install a U.S. Customs station that would allow the scheduling of direct flights to places like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
LVIA has never had a federal inspection station, and currently has no international flights. But a survey that shows Valley residents fill more than 1 million seats in airplanes departing other airports has one longtime airport authority board member wondering why.
Nearly 220,000 Lehigh Valley residents fly to Cancun, Mexico, every year.
“It’s shocking to see the number of people who drive right past this airport to Newark or Philadelphia or JFK to leave the country,” said Bert Daday, a member of the airport authority board. “There’s no reason we can’t have them flying out of LVIA.”
Actually, there is one reason: no federal inspection station.
LVIA has had limited direct flights into Canada, but without a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station at the airport, passengers must go through “pre-clearance” at an airport in Canada. Federal agents in Canada must meet Valley passengers to inspect their luggage and check their passports.
Because theU.S. Department of Homeland Securityallows pre-clearance on a very limited basis, LVIA could not schedule multiple, or even large, international flights. The most recent flights, by Air Canada to Toronto, were suspended last week because only three people per day were taking them, said airport Executive Director Charles Everett Jr.
Any other international travel out of LVIA involves a stopover at an airport with a federal inspection station.
But Everett said the demand is there, if the airport can seize it. Cancun is the biggest out-of-country destination for Valley residents, but annually 164,000 people fly in and out of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, while more than 157,000 make their way to and from Jamaica’s Montego Bay, according to a marketing study done this year by the airport.
“Lots of people from the Lehigh Valley are flying international. We know that,” Everett said. “We wouldn’t expect to keep all of them from using other airports, but we know we could get a portion of them to fly out of LVIA if we had a federal inspection station.”
Even if the airport captures 20 percent of the people leaving the Valley to take international flights, it would increase LVIA’s total annual traffic by nearly 25 percent, giving the airport its highest passenger numbers ever.
The project would involve building a 20,000-square-foot check-in station where U.S. Customs agents could inspect bags and check passports. It would be built on the second floor of the main terminal and be segregated from the airport’s domestic check-in facilities. It would cost about $5 million and be manned by six to eight U.S. Customs agents, Everett said.
He said the airport recently was awarded a $1.5 million state grant for the project, but that leaves $3.5 million to raise. Daday said local corporations will be approached to help, and Everett said other grants may be available.
The problem is LVIA has rarely been more cash-poor than it is now. Normally, filling the remaining gap wouldn’t be a problem, but the airport is weighed down by a $26 million court judgment against it for taking 632 acres of land from developers in the early 1990s.
A Lehigh County judge has ruled that the remaining $16 million on that debt must be paid in the next four years, and the airport is trying to determine which assets it can sell — including the 632 acres of mostly vacant land it took from WBF Associates — to raise cash to pay the debt.
Everett said it would take three to five months to design the inspection station and six more months to build it.
“I know it’s not the best time for this, but we’re not going to cut our way to success,” said authority Chairman Tony Iannelli. “We must grow to be successful, and this is our best chance to do that.
(c)2012 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.