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Airport’s Rise Lifts Entire Town

August 16th, 2013 by dk

Slow change doesn’t trigger strong reactions in us. Sudden changes do. But there is an important exception. We’ve all had experiences where we returned to a place we knew long ago and found ourselves shocked by how things have changed. A slow change strikes us as sudden.

Last month, I flew home to Eugene from Connecticut and I was suddenly astounded at the slow but steady improvement of our local airport.

Home for me in the 1980s was New Haven, Connecticut. It’s similar to Eugene in many ways. Both are college towns, roughly the same size. Both benefit from a large city two hours away, but each has its own airport.

Those two airports seemed about the same when I was shuttling between coasts in the early 1990s — cozy, quaint, even a bit backwater.

Jewel Murphy, who owns Passionflower gift shop downtown, once told me about her arrival in Eugene. She came from New Jersey, so her perspective was different: “The plane landed in Eugene and they rolled a stairway up to the plane. We had to walk across the Tarmac to reach the terminal. I felt like one of The Beatles.”

Eugene Airport now has jetways for some arrivals. Six airlines fly in and out of ten gates. Solicitations are being sought for an airport conference hotel. Things have changed slowly, but dramatically, over the last 20 years.

Especially by comparison. On a lark, I drove to the Tweed New Haven Airport last month to see how the two compare today. Oh my. I walked into the “terminal.” (I’m sorry, but the quotation marks are necessary.) I scanned the room: one customer, two airline employees, eight vending machines.

The two US Airways employees were grateful for the distraction. “Can we help you?” one asked from across the room. You could hear by his tone that he meant, “Are you lost?” The only customer was on her cell phone sounding peeved, as if an office underling had mistyped her itinerary, landing her in a destination preferred only by vending machines.

New Haven has thrived in recent years, so the airport isn’t a reflection of larger conditions. New York City and Hartford have not gotten any closer. But nobody is flying out of Tweed New Haven Airport anymore. Maybe people think the name is also the dress code. It’s fallen out of fashion.

I tried twice to get an interview with their airport manager, Lori Hoffman-Soares. She didn’t return my call. I went to her office, but locked doors and darkened windows told me again that I must be lost. By the door was posted public notice of the airport authority’s meeting from last April. There was an ant trap in the corner.

Heightening the contrast, I returned to Eugene a few days later and asked for a meeting with Eugene Airport Manager Tim Doll. I got an email from him in less than 20 minutes and we met the next week. I asked him how the fate of these two airports could have diverged so dramatically. He only spoke about Eugene’s.

When he arrived in 2007, he was happy to see that he didn’t have to start at the beginning. “The infrastructure had been well maintained,” Doll said. So there wasn’t any catching up to do first. The runways and equipment are all up to date. “We can land a 747 here, and we have.” Doll likes the airplanes, but he loves the customer service. He sounded most proud when describing the airport’s two bike storage lockers, provided free of charge, to anyone arriving for their flight by bicycle.

Six airlines is about all the airport can handle at the moment, unless a cargo transit company saw an opportunity here for a sorting facility and nighttime flights. The airport weathered the recession without resorting to layoffs or rate increases. The ticket counters and lobby are being redone to make room for more expansion.

Eugene’s economy rises when entrepreneurs and executives can get here easily. Nothing accelerates that trend more than improving and increasing airport service. And that requires more than vending machines and ant traps.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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