County recommends new leadership for Wilmington Airport

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

New Castle County wants to play the field.

Since 1995, the county’s airport on Route 13 has been managed by the Delaware River and Bay Authority. The DRBA operates other public facilities including the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

The DRBA’s 30-year lease runs through 2025, and was scheduled to automatically renew on June 30, 2020. Last fall, NCCo County Executive Matt Meyer launched a task force to explore the best way to maximize the value county taxpayers get out of the facility.

On Monday, the Wilmington Airport Task Force recommended that the county not renew the DRBA lease. The report says the county should issue a Request for Proposal for qualified operators, including DRBA to apply to manage the facility after 2025.

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“The people of New Castle County own our state’s largest airport and deserve to get the best value,” County Executive Meyer said. “I am grateful for the task force’s time and dedication to this important project, and we look forward to an exciting future for the airport as a hub of economic development in the region.”

As part of its work, the task force got an analysis of the airport’s potential from consulting firm Airport Business Solutions. That report found the DRBA “appears to have done an adequate job of managing and operating the Airport.” But said letting the authority’s contract lapse, gives the county an opportunity “‘start over’, whether it is merely with a new agreement or with a new operator under a new agreement.”

DRBA Executive Director Tom Cook issued a statement questioning the wisdom of not renewing the lease. “The Task Force recommendation to terminate the agreement seems based on a serious misunderstanding of the scope and magnitude of the Authority’s contributions—and of the true cost of running the airport— as well as the terms of agreement negotiated 25 years ago,” Cook said.

He said DRBA took over the airport 25 years ago because the “county did not have money or expertise to run the facility.” He said DRBA officials will meet with Meyer to try to “reach agreement on a path forward.”

In January, DRBA officials celebrated with the county as Frontier Airlines announced a return of commercial flights to the airport. Commercial air travel from Delaware has been unavailable since Frontier shut down their flights to the airport in 2015. Flights three days a week from Wilmington to Orlando were scheduled to start May 14. But travel restrictions related to the coronavirus have stalled those plans. Frontier now says those flights won’t start until November.

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