Auburn-Lewiston airport construction leaves pilots and management at odds

Construction continues Thursday afternoon at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport. Works at the east end of the facility closed runway access for some operators. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — A construction project at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport has highlighted what some tenants say is a growing disconnect between airport users and management.

Airport officials say it’s just an unfortunate situation, but they’re working on it.

When construction began this week on a major resurfacing project on the airport’s east ramp, it closed off access to several tenants and pilots based there. Some, including Skyward Aviation, have said they will essentially have to cease operations for two months.

The east ramp is the hanger location used by LifeFlight and other flight service companies and pilots.

A number of those affected called on airport management to phase out the project so it does not disrupt operations for an extended period, and said management had ample time to limit the impact on tenants. Some said it was just the latest example of a rift between long-time tenants and the airport administration.

A post on the airport’s website addressed the concerns this week, with airport manager James Scheller saying the project could not be done in phases for several logistical and financial reasons.

“I want to express that I am with you 100% regarding the downside element of this project, he said in the letter to tenants. “However, this project was launched last year when the bids were finalized.”

Scheller, through the airport’s board of directors, declined to answer specific questions for this story.

However, earlier in the week, as construction had just begun, Scheller said crews discovered “a lot of unknowns that weren’t planned”, including the drainage of when the airport was operated by the US Navy.

“You couldn’t have phased it out,” he said.

The airport board is made up of elected officials and residents of Auburn and Lewiston, as well as a member of the Council of Androscoggin Valley Governments and the Lewiston Economic Growth Council- Auburn.

A chain of emails passed to the Sun Journal between dozens of tenants and officials describes the level of scrutiny management has received on the project.

At least one claims tenants were initially told the project could be done in phases to accommodate users during construction, but tenants were later told of the two-month closure just a week before construction began .

“It is inconceivable to me that the airport authorities would organize ‘improvements’ in such a way that a local business would effectively be taken out of service for two months,” pilot John Mills wrote on the thread.

Tom Ward of Skyward Aviation, who maintains the planes, said: “At this stage I’m not sure I can function and help anyone as there are no plans to accommodate me elsewhere. .”

Mills, a 21-year-old lessee, said his plane is in line to be serviced by Skyward.

Ward said at least two pilots who flew relief flights from Auburn have moved to Portland.

The East Ramp project was announced in July 2021 after the airport secured $1.6 million in federal funding, the majority of which was earmarked to rebuild the East Ramp on the Hotel Road side of the facility. The section houses hangers used by LifeFlight and others.

In the letter to tenants this week, Scheller said the east ramp project was originally scheduled to start in April, but was delayed by the contractor. He said while he understands the disruption this is causing, there are several reasons why it is being done at the same time.

According to Scheller, the FAA and the state have a construction phasing and safety plan that is set in stone. If the plan was adjusted now, the project would be pushed back to spring 2023, he said.

“If that happened, the contractor would be allowed to re-bid the project and the estimated cost increase (based on current inflation) would be an additional $450,000,” he said. “Then there would be the engineering costs to phase the project.”

He added that even if airport management had known the extent of tenants’ concerns about staggering the project earlier in the year, he estimated there would have been nearly $225,000 in costs. additional engineering for the effort.

“I hope when this project is complete we can all look back on the improved roadway and enjoy it,” he said.

The project is expected to be completed by September 28.

Run Russell, a pilot who has flown from Auburn-Lewiston Airport since 1969, believes the problem goes deeper than concern over tenant and customer access during some construction.

He said the airport board “is not competent to make decisions” and believes its manager is “taking us in the wrong direction”.

“For years, I and most of my fellow airport users didn’t raise these issues,” he said. “It’s only been a few months since the pot overflowed. Everyone here has had enough. It’s time to enlighten the public that we are in trouble. The system is not working. And it’s getting worse and worse. »

Reconstruction of the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport’s east ramp continues Thursday afternoon in Auburn. The project closed access to the tracks for some operators. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Last month, the airport was visited by U.S. Representative Jared Golden in a bid to secure $1.6 million in federal funding for a new hangar, which airport officials say is part long-term growth objectives for the airport and its offerings. They hope this could eventually include commercial flights.

Glen Holmes, Auburn’s director of business and community development and chairman of the airport’s board of directors, said at the time that the proposed project would meet a demand for more aircraft space and generate revenue. additional.

A statement from Auburn officials said the city was in talks with tenant Elite Airways “to hopefully expand to the point of offering commercial flights directly from Auburn.”

While officials say big things are on the way, existing tenants say they are being overlooked and ignored.

Ward said it was typical of the airport not to take care of itself, “always chasing that big dream of arriving commuters.”

Pilot Annie Beaulieu said management and the board had, over the past year, “ignored the interests and concerns of pilots and tenants.”

“There needs to be urgent change and accountability at management and board level if the airport is to thrive,” she said.

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