The formal announcement that Fly Ottumwa would skip 2019 was a long time coming. The reality is that the writing was on the wall months ago, but officials with the organization waited to confirm it.
That said, this is the right move.
The replacement of the airport’s main runway is needed. Portions go back to the original construction by the U.S. Navy, when the site was Naval Air Station Ottumwa. Concrete deteriorates over time even when it doesn’t have the wear of having aircraft roll over it on a daily basis.
When finished, the main runway will be one of the top 10 in length in Iowa. That alone doesn’t mean a great deal. Most planes that take off there won’t need anywhere near the full length. But the additional distance will help with some planes and, more importantly, it signals to companies and pilots that Ottumwa is serious about offering a high-quality airport capable of meeting their needs.
It’s not quite as simple as just laying down a new concrete strip, though. Mayor Tom Lazio described the work during his appearance on the Courier’s podcast this week:
“They will dig down and tear out the entire runway, and the new lights, we’ll replace all the lights along the runway. That also will be a six to 10-month project, depending on the weather,” he said. “Remember, that was constructed back in ’42, ’43, by the Navy. And we already know from the core sampling they did there are some places where the cement is 24 inches thick, but there are other places where it’s 36 to 48 inches thick. We don’t know what we’ll get into.”
The scale of the project, combined with the uncertainty of exactly what the work will uncover, means that it would be tremendously unwise to commit the resources, time and money to making the kind of hard deadline Fly Ottumwa requires. The only guarantee anyone should be making with regard to a project like this is that something, somewhere along the line, will go wrong. There will be surprises. And those surprises will mean delays.
Skipping 2019 is disappointing. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to do this for such a young program. Fly Ottumwa has only had one show, remember. The prior one was Fly Iowa, which local organizers used as a springboard for Fly Ottumwa.
The hope is that reconstruction will set the airport up for better things, including better things for Fly Ottumwa. We think there’s another reason to view this as a necessary step, though.
Improving Ottumwa’s airport now means getting those steps completed before the Oskaloosa/Pella airport project ever gets out of its courtroom quagmire. That airport will be a direct competitor with Ottumwa. It’s bogged down in disputes now and will almost certainly head into the courts when it comes to obtaining the land. Most of the people whose land will be used don’t support the airport, and they’re willing to fight to keep their homes.
The improvement of Ottumwa’s airport will help, as will the fact the FAA has decided to allow it to remain open while the construction takes place. The last thing Ottumwa would need is people being forced to find new homes for aircraft for the duration of construction. There’s always a risk people won’t come back.
Construction at the airport and the temporary loss of Fly Ottumwa is disappointing. We view it as a necessary disappointment, though, and one that is worth the disruption in the long run.