Closure of Westerly Airport not viable

RIAC says it may be an option; locals not so much
Fri, 08/11/2017 - 10:00am
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A recent report in The Westerly Sun that said the Rhode Island Airport Corporation might consider shutting down Westerly Airport if an equitable solution about the height of trees on some neighboring private properties could not be resolved seemed to some on the island like a drastic solution to a local problem.

It also turns out, according to Bill Bendokas, co-owner of New England Airlines since 1970, that the spotlight thrown on the Westerly Airport may in fact be a good thing. He also felt the proposed option of closing the airport would be a last resort for RIAC, and the situation was not yet that dire.

But first, the island reaction to the news that RIAC considers closing the airport a “real option:”

“They can’t let that happen,” said Block Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Szabo. “They can’t close that down.”

“It’s not happening,” said State Rep. Blake Filippi.

“I don’t really know what the situation is over there, but obviously the Westerly Airport is critical to the economic success of Block Island, and just our basic way of life,” said Block Island Tourism Director Jessica Willi. “Think of how much we would be affected on Block Island, on a personal level, and on an economic level.”

The issue is not new. In fact, former Town Manager Nancy Dodge wrote a memo to RIAC on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, that stated, “The Town of New Shoreham is very concerned that the [Federal Aviation Administration] has suspended nighttime [Instrument Flight Rules] localizer landings on Westerly Airport runway 7 until certain trees are removed. I understand RIAC has moved under eminent domain to notify affected property owners that these trees need to be removed. The Town of New Shoreham relies on New England Airlines for medical reasons, and these flights do occur at night under IFR conditions on occasion. Please urge the parties involved to cooperate in this action so that we on the island can be assured of reaching Westerly Hospital at night in questionable weather.” Instrument flight rules are put in effect when the pilot must rely on instruments on the flight deck to fly an aircraft. (Those IFR nighttime flights are still restricted, said Bendokas.)

According to the report in The Westerly Sun, published on Aug. 7, RIAC Senior Vice President Alan R. Andrade wrote to Westerly Town Manager Derrick Kennedy the following on May 24, 2017:

“Given the amount of negative attention and consternation the airport seems to bring to each and every Town Hall meeting, the best solution may be to close the airport. Please know that closing the airport is a real option for RIAC. RIAC needs an understanding of ‘what the town wants for an airport,’” Andrade wrote, according to the article. “To do so requires impacts to private property surrounding the airport. This approach has painted RIAC as being problematic and inconsiderate to the community. Please know that we will do whatever the town asks of us, but I need an answer soon. We are under pressure from the FAA to address the known hazards that currently exist to the existing runway approach surfaces.”

Bendokas said that planes flying into the airport — or any airport for that matter — “follow very specific tracks through the air, they have a certain amount of protected path, a glide path or approach path, and the trees are impinging on that flight path.” Because of that, Bendokas said, “there are limitations at the airport that should not exist because the trees are in the vertical safety zone.” By removing the “impinging trees,” said Bendokas, RIAC is “simply trying to bring the airport to complete federal compliance.”

Block Island has had its own problem with trees near the airport. The area known as the Enchanted Forest, a stand of white pines west of Center Road, in the Nathan Mott Park, was taken down in 2003 in part because of FAA safety concerns (many of the trees had been dead for some time). RIAC said to The Block Island Times at the time that if the trees did not come down, “there’s a possibility the airport could be closed at night.”

“We weren’t happy to lose that, but it was a safety issue. That had to happen,” said Filippi about the Enchanted Forest.

As far as RIAC’s consideration of closing the airport, Bendokas said he believed the comment was made by Andrade, the RIAC Senior Vice President, as a “kind of a gentle waving of the big stick.” He said “that would be the extreme reaction.” He also said RIAC is “trying to do the right thing so the airport can run more safely and adhere to the standards that apply across the country.”

Patti Goldstein, Communications Director for RIAC, told The Block Island Times that RIAC “truly wants this to be worked out with the community in Westerly.”

As far as the issue being a good thing for the Westerly Airport, Bendokas said he noticed that in the public comment section in The Westerly Sun that many responders spoke about how valuable the airport is to the community. “Some of the public response brought out the idea that there’s much more value to the airport, and not just to Block island, but to the area,” said Bendokas. “So I see it as a positive as far as the airport is concerned.”

None of this, Bendokas said, should be construed in a way that would make anyone think that the Westerly Airport is unsafe.

“Absolutely not,” he said “It’s a thousand percent better than it was when I first started. Everything has been improved, not expanded, just to make it safer.”

When asked if the Westerly Airport is safe to fly in and out of, Goldstein said, “Yes, definitely. The FAA would not allow us to operate the airport, if it were not. The airport has been there since the 1930s.” She went on to say that, “The FAA, not RIAC, determines how the airport should operate, and they have placed the restrictions that limit the operations. The trees present a safety issue impacting the full utility of the runway. We want good relations with the communities that host airports in the state and will continue to meet with the elected officials and neighbors to work together towards that goal.”