A $5.2 million project to improve runway tie-ins at Waco Regional Airport represents the latest in upgrades valued at more than $40 million aimed at improving the safety and efficiency of a facility that handles nearly 68,000 passengers annually.
The city has identified another $19 million in projects it would like to start, with the Federal Aviation Administration likely covering 90 percent of the cost, said Joel Martinez, aviation director and manager of Waco Regional since 2008, when efforts began to improve the runways and terminal.
With the help of Austin-based Walker Partners engineers and Coffman Associates airport consultants, of Missouri, the city will spend about $600,000 on a 10-year blueprint to make the airport even more of a community asset.
The 10-year plan will take about a year to complete, and the public will have opportunities for input, Martinez said.
For now, crews are putting the finishing touches on taxiway tie-ins for the airport’s 5,800-foot-long secondary runway, which serves as a backup to the 7,100-foot-long main runway and can relieve congestion by serving the needs of general aviation traffic, including private planes and small jets.
“This is something we’ve had in the planning stage for three or four years and was designed last year,” Martinez said. “We began work in January, when traffic was light.”
The FAA, which collects fees on ticket sales, is paying 90 percent of the $5.2 million price for the most recent work. The project will improve access to the secondary runway from taxiways that have been reconfigured, Martinez said.
Crews are expected to complete the project by the end of June, he said.
Near the terminal, adjacent to Skeet Eason Road, the city also has approved construction of an $800,000 carwash for use by the rental car agencies at Waco Regional.
The facility will allow Enterprise, Hertz and Avis to keep their fleets clean for arriving customers without driving to a commercial carwash.
The facility will not be open to the public, according to Pearson Construction, which is serving as general contractor.
Fees that the rental agencies have been collecting for several years are being tapped to cover the cost of construction, making it a self-funded venture, according to city officials.
Martinez said the city in recent years targeted the airport for improvements that weren’t in the last master plan adopted for Waco Regional that dates back to 1999.
This aging document has become obsolete and in need of a comprehensive replacement, which is why the cost of creating a new blueprint is reaching well into six figures.
Site improvements have included extending the main runway by 525 feet and fortifying its asphalt, making it capable of accommodating “pretty much anything flying,” including Air Force One, Martinez said.
Crews also made improvements to aprons where aircraft are parked, loaded, refueled and boarded. About a year ago, workers built a so-called perimeter road around the airport property for use by emergency and maintenance vehicles. They also have installed two boarding bridges at the terminal.
Future needs, which a new master plan likely would validate, include drainage improvements to prevent water generated by developments west of the airport from pooling on the airfield, Martinez said. The dozen or so private hangars at the airport are full, and more could be added, he said.
The airport also needs a run-up area, where planes can pause before takeoff to check engine pressure.
“We also would like to undertake a third phase of apron improvements and install emergency generation capabilities,” Martinez said.
The terminal sometimes suffers power outages that prove inconvenient but do not jeopardize the safety of operations, he said.
Upgrades completed and those on the drawing board could serve to attract additional aviation-related businesses to the airport. They also could make the daily commercial flights between Waco and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport easier or make the facility attractive to additional commuter carriers.
“Our goal, and we are nearly there, is to make every piece of asphalt at Waco Regional Airport less than 5 years old,” Martinez said.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, who served from 2001 to 2009 and visited Central Texas regularly to stay at his country home near Crawford, talk of making the airport at Texas State Technical College Waco’s municipal airport became a hot topic among community and business leaders.
It once served as a military airfield and can accommodate aircraft of every size and description. Waco’s largest industrial employer, L-3 Communications, is located at the TSTC airport, where it modifies military and commercial aircraft, including the flying palaces owned by foreign heads of state.
That conversation faded as city officials vowed to make Waco Regional “the best aviation facility it could be,” Martinez said.
Waco in 2012 lost its link to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston when United Airlines discontinued its United Express flights. That left American Eagle as the only company providing flights that link local passengers to a major hub for national and international flights.
The next year, the city, the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and the Waco Business League pledged $150,000 to launch a marketing blitz called “Fly Waco” that used radio and television spots, billboards and the print media to tout the advantages of using Waco Regional instead of traveling to Dallas, Killeen or Austin to begin flights.
Tommy Miller, director of operations at Texas Aero, a company at Waco Regional that sells fuel and provides aviation-related services, applauded the improvements at the airport and credited Martinez for “doing the job right” in terms of pursuing funding for upgrades.
Miller said timing of the upgrades could not have been better, as commercial and industrial development has exploded in Waco, bringing executives to town by air. He said Baylor University’s new McLane Stadium and the Magnolia Market also are attracting tourists who may fly into Waco Regional.
“I’m getting outstanding feedback from the pilots,” Miller said. “All the markings and the new parallel taxiway are going to be outstanding.”
Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said the airport remains a vital part of industry recruiting.
“Access is very important to business and industry,” Collins said. “Moving people around can set us apart from other communities our size that may not have the resources we have.”
Attention to quality control and keeping the airport on the cutting edge helps the city keep local commuter air service, she said.
Collins said she flies out of Waco about 10 times a year, always on American Eagle, “and it is my impression that it offers a quality service.”