By DENNIS SEID / Daily Journal

TUPELO • A 2016 study of the runway at Tupelo Regional Airport revealed some deficiencies, and to ensure that those deficiencies haven’t gotten worse, airport executive director Cliff Nash has asked the airport board to approve another study to be conducted.

The cost of the study – at airport expense – is almost $90,000, and would take about three months to complete, as an engineering firm would take samples along the 7,100-foot runway.

“It’s not that the pavement is unsafe,” Nash said. “The last study was three years go, and for lack of better words, the numbers came in lower than anticipated. The lower the numbers of the pavement means that could restrict the number of operations that we we have routinely seen.

“Based on the numbers, it’s a fine line between are you overloading the pavement or are you growing and need to expand. I think it’s very important to just take another snapshot to confirm those numbers or to see of they’ve gotten worse.”

The number of operations at the airport has grown in recent years.

Contour Airlines began commercial air service between Tupelo and Nashville in April 2016, and recently switched to a bigger 30-passenger jet this past April from a smaller 19-seat twin turboprop.

The adjacent Army Aviation Support Facility also uses the runway, and aircraft from the U.S Air Force base in Columbus often use it, as well.

In addition, private aircraft come in regularly, as do charter flights, which use larger aircraft like a 737 or 757.

And Universal Asset Management, which disassembles and recycles planes as large as a 747, has been in operation since 2011.

All that activity puts stress on any airport’s runways and taxiways, and Nash wants to ensure that Tupelo Regional is equipped for the future.

The study likely won’t be done until 2020, but Nash said its important to compare the data to determine what the next steps are for the airport.

“We can use the data in a number of ways. One, we can protect the pavement and we do maintenance to preserve the pavement,” he said. “Or we use that justification that we’re growing in operations and we need to beef up the pavement of the runway to support ongoing operations. It’s not ‘build it and they will come,’ but rather support what we already have. But then, more importantly, having engineers who understand these numbers and come up with a recommended plan.”

The engineers would analyze all the information and then come up with an assessment. They could determine whether there is higher deterioration of the runway than normal, or it could be that everything is fine, Nash said.

“Then we can make the determination to keep on what we’re doing, or, working with the FAA, beef up our runway if needed,” he said. “It could be everything is fine and in two or three years we may need to resurface the keel section (the middle portion of the runway) or if it needs a major overlay.”

A worse-case scenario would be that the sub-base of the runway needs to be repaired, which could disrupt operations of the airport.

But until the study is done, all that is speculation. In any case, the study is needed to determine the airport’s needs and plans for the near-term, mid-term and long term, Nash said.

Because the airport has been able to boost passenger boardings above 10,000, it has become eligible to receive $1 million in what is called AIP, or Airport Improvement Program, funding through the Federal Aviation Administration. AIP provides grants for the planning and development of public-use airports. For small primary, reliever, and general aviation airports like Tupelo, the grant covers a range of 90-95 percent of eligible costs, based on statutory requirements.

Eligible projects include improvements related to enhancing airport safety, capacity, security, and environmental concerns. In general, airports can get AIP funds for most airfield capital improvements or rehabilitation projects and in some specific situations, for terminals, hangars and non-aviation development. Certain professional services that are necessary for eligible projects (such as planning, surveying, and design) can also be eligible. The funding can’t be used to pay for airport operations, such as salaries or maintenance.

“Not being pessimistic, but if we get $2 million or $3 million in AIP funds over the next two or three years, where do we need to invest that money?” Nash said. “I would like to invest it in things to help us expand and grow and add other revenue, but if we have to use it to repave the runway, then we can’t do that. The study will help us make those informed decisions.”