By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HEBRON - As the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport officially broke ground on its new runway Friday, the nation's top transportation official said to expect more of the same nationwide.
In a separate interview Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that the Federal Aviation Administration now is returning its attention to airport capacity needs, even though the airline industry remains in a dismal slump.
"We know that demand is going to come back, though," said Mineta, who was originally supposed to attend Friday's ceremony but was unable to make it. "We had to use (airport improvement program) funds for security after Sept. 11, and diverted funds away from runways and taxiways.
"Now that's over ... so we are trying to make sure that when demand does come back, we do not experience what we went through in the summer of 2000, when we had delays, cancellations and one of the most horrendous summers for travelers on record."
The local airport has begun preliminary construction on the $237 million project, which includes the construction of an 8,000-foot north/south runway on the western side of the airport. In addition, the existing 10,000-foot east/west runway will be expanded by 2,000 feet to the west to allow fully loaded large jets to reach destinations in Asia and eastern Europe.
The projectis due to be completed in late 2005, and is the second new runway at the airport in less than 15 years.
Friday's event included skydivers carrying the U.S. flag to the ground as the national anthem played, and a mock dynamite display setting off fireworks to signify the groundbreaking.
And amid all the pomp, many on hand said that the local airport is one of a few nationally to keep focused on the future. The airport opened a new runway in 1991, contrasting starkly with other airports that have taken decades to get just one runway built.
"People don't realize that it takes 10-12 years to get one of these done, and to be able to do it so smoothly shows the local officials having invaluable foresight," said FAA deputy administrator Robert A. Sturgell, the highest ranking federal official at Friday's event. "And we are in a lull that we need to take advantage of. And that's why this airport is fortunate to have people working on the future as much as they do."
Airline officials also welcomed the arrival of the new capacity, pointing out that Cincinnati is one of few airports to see flights increase after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"When 9/11 took place, I was hoping that no one would forget that capacity would eventually come back and that we couldn't get complacent or we'd be back where we were," said Randy Rademacher, president of Erlanger-based regional airline Comair. "To be honest, this runway is going to help here immediately, much less five years from now."
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