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Anniston council members wish for partners at airport

Anniston Airport

The Anniston Airport. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

The problems at Anniston Regional Airport, City Councilman Jay Jenkins believes, may trace back to the moment the Model City put its name on the airfield.

Some other small airports are run by multi-government bodies. But Anniston didn't choose Cheaha Regional or some other inclusive name that could have attracted other cities as partners. 

"We pushed them away from the table years ago," Jenkins said Thursday.

The airport was one of the main topics of discussion at the Anniston City Council's Thursday work session at Anniston City Meeting Center. The meeting was the last of three work sessions on the budget. But the airport discussion went beyond dollars and cents. 

The city found itself in a tough spot with the Federal Aviation Administration in April, when the FAA sent a "letter of investigation" warning of "repeat discrepancies" in airport operations. Among other things, the letter warned of cracked runways, poorly maintained signs and lights and personnel not equipped with "sufficient resources to meet minimum safety requirements."

The airport, south of Oxford but still the property of Anniston, has a 7,000-foot runway approved for aircraft up to 500,000 pounds, well able to handle many larger jets. It offered a small amount of passenger service decades ago, when the Army's Fort McClellan was still in operation across town, but now it handles mostly private pilots and occasional military flights. 

At the budget hearing Thursday, public works director David Arnett explained some of the plan to address the airport's woes. Arnett is asking for one more worker at the airport — the only addition to the city staff proposed for 2021 — to help with maintenance at the airfield. 

Arnett is also pursuing a $3.7 million federal grant to add a 2-inch overlay to the runway, a project that should address the FAA's concerns with cracks and other problems. The city has to match 5 percent of that money, and Arnett said much of the money would come from the airport fund, a separate budget the city maintains just for the airport. 

Arnett said that if approved, the runway project would begin some time in September, and would shut down the airfield for about three months while construction is done. He said that wouldn't likely hurt the airport's revenue, much of which comes from a lease with Anniston Aviation, which provides fuel and aircraft maintenance to pilots. 

Arnett said the changes would help the airport work out many of the problems brought up by the FAA.

"We're in a much better position than we were four months ago," he said. 

Council members lamented the fact that in airport management, the city is essentially going it alone. Jenkins said that before the current council was seated, city leaders decided the airport should be Anniston's responsibility, even though many other small airports are run by multi-government airport authorities.  

"Anniston is clearly not the only city that profits from the airport, but we're the only one paying the bills," he said. 

City manager Steven Folks said Oxford city officials recently told him they were perplexed to see that Oxford's police department wasn't on the airport's list of agencies to be notified in case of an airport incident. 

"They're the closest police department but they're not in our manual," Folks said. He said that problem is being fixed. 

Mayor Jack Draper expressed support for the idea of a multi-city airport authority, an idea he said would likely require action by the Legislature. It's not the first time the council has addressed the topic, which also came up in council discussions in April, though the Legislature doesn't meet again in regular session until next year. 

The city will take up discussion of the budget again in a hearing on Aug. 18. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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