At least, that’s the hope of city leaders.
Anniston was enjoying storm-free weather on April 10. But at the Birmingham airport, a severe thunderstorm kept a Southwest flight out of Baltimore from landing.
The plane was running low on fuel and was diverted to Anniston for refueling, said Scott Wallace, general manager for the fixed-base operator at the airport.
“Southwest has come in here several times in the past to fly JSU out to football games and such,” Wallace said. “This was the first time one was diverted that was trying to get into another airport.”
Wallace had about 15 minutes to call in additional employees, notify the fire department of the potential emergency and prepare for the landing. Everything went flawlessly, he said.
The pilot never declared an emergency; the unplanned Anniston landing was just a precaution, Wallace said. But the airport's smooth response under pressure may convince more pilots to use Anniston as an alternate airport, Wallace said. He noted it could even later position the Anniston facility as a feeder airport for a commercial airline.
“We want all the airlines to label us for both Birmingham and Atlanta as the alternate,” Anniston City Manager Don Hoyt agreed. “Eventually people will understand, well, maybe we can start having flights out of there. That’s the goal.”
The airport sees a variety of planes -- from the casual visitor to military aircraft and freight flights, Wallace said. The Huntsville-based Munitions Defense Agency recently tested its C-17 cargo aircraft at the local airport.
The test went well, and more of those C-17 flights are scheduled to start soon.
Toby Bennington, Anniston’s city planner, said he thinks the airport could handle two to three times the operations it currently does.
For private flights that land and take off from the airport, workers already provide baggage-handling, refueling and boarding. Those private flights include planes flying into the area for Talladega races and other sporting events, Wallace said. Those flights are only sporadically scheduled to come through the Anniston airport.
The Anniston City Council recently commissioned Jacksonville State University to do an economic development study of the airport Richard Cobb, who teaches marketing and management at JSU, presented the results of the study to the council members at a work session Tuesday.
The airport has a lot of potential, Cobb said.
For example: It has a 7,000-by-150-foot runway and can handle planes with a wingspan of up to 118 feet. It has a terminal in good condition and is certified for some unscheduled commercial service. The hard work has been done, Cobb said, now the city has to tap into that potential.
“If our area grows in industry like I think it will, the airport is a big player in it,” Cobb said.
At its current operation level, the facility has an $11.5 million impact on the local community and supports 286 area jobs, Cobb said.
But a survey of local Chamber of Commerce members showed that just 16.2 percent of those who answered the questionnaire said they currently use the airport.
Nearly twice that, 30.8 percent, thought they might use the airport in the future. Still, only 6.7 percent of those responding had considered the advantages of being located near the airport.
Growing airports in metro areas similar to Anniston have several things in common, Cobb said, including a management board of some kind, an emphasis on community involvement and good marketing and communications. Anniston could improve in those areas, Cobb said.
Bennington said he thinks marketing the airport is the first priority.
“We have to build a customer base,” Bennington said. “We need to tap into our businesses and industries and corporate-level opportunities to make it known that this airport is there and what services are available.”
The airport, if marketed properly, can bring in industry as well as benefit the industry that is already in the area, he said.
Robinson brought up the lease the city has with the fixed base operator, Anniston Aviation. He has complained before that the lease favored the operator too much and the city wasn’t making enough money from the deal. He brought up the same points Tuesday.
Jenkins was more concerned with the management at the airport. He addressed the need for a board of some kind to help run the facility. He questioned whether such a board should include members of other communities that benefit from the airport -- like Oxford, Calhoun and Talladega.
“Our airport is completely surrounded by another community,” Jenkins said. “I mean, it’s easy for Oxford to see the benefit in Anniston’s airport.”
Of the growing airports he studied, Cobb said, three had created regional boards. The rest had boards composed of officials from their own communities.
“There’s no real correlation in that one was more successful doing it this way than the others doing it that way,” Cobb said. “I think what is best is to have some form of formal management structure.”
Bennington didn’t mention a preference about the structure of the board but did say the development of the airport has to be considered regionally.
What helps one area of the county will also indirectly benefit another, the city planner said.
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545. On Twitter @Lcamper_star.