Statewide fires boost air travel in Abilene, but locals are flying more too

Statewide fires boost air travel in Abilene, but locals are flying more too

19 September 2011

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USA — Dry weather helped to fuel disastrous wildfires across Texas, but the calamitous events that have destroyed thousands of homes also helped boost Abilene’s economy.

From January through July, more than 2,800 Texas Forest Service personnel flew out of Abilene Regional Airport after traveling through the agency’s regional command center in Merkel.

Another 6,300 U.S. Forest Service workers and firefighters passed through Abilene between Jan. 1 and Sept. 18, filling seats on plans, renting cars and staying in hotels.

“We have a 10 percent increase in plane passengers. Seven percent of that is directly attributed to traffic going to and from the forest service’s staging area in Merkel,” said Don Green, Abilene’s director of aviation. “That other 3 percent is our local riders flying more. It’s probably a combination of an improved economy here and business travel doing better.”

The airport doesn’t track whether passengers fly for business or travel, but past studies showed that most passengers moving through Abilene did so for business, not leisure.

Forest service and fire personnel accounted for at least 150 hotel rooms in Abilene this year, said Warren Bielenberg, spokesman for both the Texas and federal forest services. Some of those were occupied for one night. Others were filled for weeks.

Increased airport traffic increases revenue for American Eagle. That in turn makes the airport more attractive to other airlines that may be looking to expand into the Abilene market, Green said.

It also provides the airport with more direct funding. Every person who departs from Abilene pays a $4.50 “passenger facility charge,” which helps pay off the debt owed for past airport improvements.

The Federal Aviation Administration distributes grant awards based on the number of passengers moving through an airport, Green said. More passengers mean the airport could potentially receive more federal funding in the future.

Then there are trickle-down effects.

“As our statistics show, the more people moving through the airport, the better it is for our rental cars, hotels and restaurants,” Green said. “We certainly don’t like the reason for that seven-point increase, but the reality is that more people are flying here because of the fires.”

Merkel serves as a Texas Forest Service headquarters, a command station that coordinates the whereabouts of nearly 1,300 people and hundreds of pieces of equipment.

“Are we pumping money into the local economy?” Bielenberg said. “You bet we are. There’s no telling how much money we’ve spent locally on flights, hotels, cars, food, supplies. You name it, and we’ve bought it here.”

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