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A message from Lew Bleiweis, A.A.E., Executive Director: Airport's care is an economic issue

Around 11 million visitors each year flock to Western North Carolina to explore our amazing area. WNC has also seen significant business growth in recent years.

And Asheville Regional Airport is critical to the vitality of our region. The airport generates nearly $1.5 billion for the local economy and supports nearly 9,000 local jobs. We are the gateway to and from WNC and the world, with unprecedented air service growth in the past two years.

To continue the positive economic impact in our region, we must maintain our airport. The local economy depends on our ability to bring people to the area, and our airport is vital to connect Western North Carolina with other communities around the world.

Asheville Airport needs infrastructure investments to meet the existing flow of passengers, and to keep up with increased demand in the future. Within the past five years, the airport has seen passenger use grow by an astounding 67 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing small-hub airports in the country. Our terminal is too small to keep up with this growth, and we are in the planning stages to expand the airport terminal facilities.

This new expanded terminal, which would feature a dozen gates and loading bridges, is the visionary step we need to take to manage growth and meet the future head-on. Unfortunately, this important project is only in preliminary planning stages because we lack the full financing mechanism to move forward.

The good news is that there’s a simple solution — funded by users of airports. If Congress would lift the cap on the existing Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) — a modest fee paid by travelers on which airports depend to fund projects — Asheville Airport could more confidently move forward. By lifting the $4.50 per trip leg cap on the PFC for the first time in nearly 20 years and moving it up slightly to account for 20 years of inflation (no more than $8.50 per trip leg), Congress would allow the airport to generate necessary resources for this project.

And it is important to note that a multiyear terminal expansion project at Asheville Airport would have a major impact on our local economy. It would create hundreds of jobs and infuse millions of additional dollars into our region’s economy.

Some will argue that we should leave the PFC alone. However, detractors fail to acknowledge that keeping the PFC at the current level could result in economic stagnation and risk infrastructure development at airports across the country. Simply put, failing to upgrade our airport infrastructure could have a significant negative effect on our ability to grow to meet air service needs for our community, and ultimately a negative effect on our economy.

North Carolina’s members of Congress have the opportunity to help get this project over the finish line. Congressman Mark Meadows has been a steadfast supporter of our airport and holds an important position on the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I am encouraging him to help raise the issue there. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have also been strong leaders on improving infrastructure across our state, and I look forward to working with our state’s delegation on this important issue.

As Asheville prepares to welcome millions of local travelers and visitors this summer and in coming years, it’s vital that we ensure that our airport is able not just to handle the large number of travelers but also serve our residents properly. Modernizing the way we fund airport infrastructure isn’t just important for our airport — it’s vital for Western North Carolina’s continued economic success.