Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport
New projects in the wings
Business View Magazine interviews Michael Isaacs, Director of Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport, for our focus on U.S. Regional Airports
On the Pacific Northwest Coast, the mighty Columbia River winds its way from the coast through Washington and Oregon, then into British Columbia and Alberta north of the border. However, the rivers that make up its catchment cover even more territory and if you follow one of them, the Snake River, you end up in Lewiston, Idaho, which is, remarkably, the furthest Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport in the U.S.
Michael Isaacs, Airport Director for the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport, explains, “This is a jump-off point for the back country. There are a lot of aviation enthusiasts that fly out in their bush planes into the mountains. On the other hand, as the furthest inland deep-water port, right here where the Clearwater and Snake Rivers meet, we have one of the world’s largest paper mills, but we also have cruise ship traffic. From March until December we have cruise ships that make their way from Portland all the way here to Lewiston – there are about 35,000 passengers a year on those ships from American and Princess Cruise Lines.”
This has changed the way Lewiston, a city of almost 35,000 people, handles its tourism and travel. The city traces its roots back to 1861 and the gold rush. It was the capital of Idaho when it first became a territory. Over the years the area has thrived on timber, agriculture, and paper, while also being home to the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area. Lewiston is also important for the manufacturing of ammunition; the headquarters of ammunition makers CCI and Speer Bullet are both located in the city.
Back in 1928, the Chamber of Commerce decided to build an airport, but it was not until 1942 that the first runway was put in and 1944 saw the beginning of commercial aviation. In 1969, the runway was lengthened to 6500 feet and jet service began.
Today, the airport covers 865 acres at an elevation of 1,442 feet and has two asphalt runways: 8/26 is 6,511 by 150 feet and 12/30 is 5,002 by 75 feet. The Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport is jointly owned by the City of Lewiston and Nez Perce County and administered by a local airport authority. Approximately 80 percent of its focus is on general aviation with 115 aircraft based out of the airport. Hangars, as well as other facilities, are a mixture of built infrastructure and ground leases.
Aviation-related businesses include Gustin Aviation, Life Flight, Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Air Posse, Lohman Helicopter, and Skelton Air. Two Fixed Base Operators provide the full slate of services – Hillcrest Aircraft Company, which is primarily focused on helicopters, and Frontier Aviation and Jet Center who are more focused on the agricultural and corporate side. Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport also operates a business park on the south corner of the field, where Seekins Precision, a firearm manufacturer, is an anchor tenant.
“The cruise lines have increased our air traffic as well,” says Isaacs, who took over as Airport Manager at the beginning of 2020. “We’re very happy and fortunate to have two of the world’s largest airlines in Lewiston – Delta serving Salt Lake City, and United flying daily to Denver. We have spent about $19 million on infrastructure in the last three years. We redid our crosswind runway, reconfigured taxiways, built a fire station administration building, remodelled the second floor in the boarding area… so we\’ve expanded our capacity and doubled our boarding capacity. We have just been going great guns in terms of expanding and making this airport an amazing place to fly into or out of.”
From a general aviation perspective, the airport has seen its busiest season in 25 years. Where commercial aviation has only come back to about 80% of pre-COVID numbers, corporate and GA traffic has soared. Idaho just issued an economic impact statement that showed a direct economic impact from the airport of over $73 million, with an employee base of 775 people. From a small airport struggling with growth, Lewiston-Nez Perce has become a regional powerhouse and part of the economic solution.
“And there is still a lot of space for development,” says Isaacs, “we even have some new projects in the wings. There\’s a lot of potential for new businesses and new revenue streams. Part of LWS included an old ball field – the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport owns the land and is developing it into a hotel and restaurant. It’s located on the 2nd busiest throughfare in the city on Bryden Drive. Our catchment area includes places as far away as McCall, ID so having a hotel on the front doorstep helps passengers and airline crews.”
Growth is happening on other fronts as well. Like most general aviation airports hangar space is at a premium and starting next year new hangars will be built at the end of the south taxiway, adjacent to the business park, potentially allowing more corporate traffic. There are plans to expand the parking facilities, and then look at expanding the cargo footprint. FedEx operates a facility there now and would expand that once the land is allocated. The next step would be to take stock of the terminal that was built in the 1950s and remodelled in the ’90s – to see whether it makes sense to remodel or to build something different.
“As we grow, we’re trying to reach out in different directions into the community,” says Isaacs. “For example, we have been discussing with the local college here, Lewis and Clark, the possibility of a pilot training class being part of their offerings. Before COVID, we also had big air shows that drew crowds in and got them excited about the airplanes and the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport. The chairman of our board is very interested in starting a community museum with all the old warbirds he has, like a P51 Mustang, a P40, and one bi-wing. In the past, we had 15,000 people out to the show, and it is a free event for the community. For the last two years, a squadron of WWII aircraft flew over the cities in a pre-programmed, preplanned route, and he would time it so that if there\’s a parade they would do a flyby over the parade. We are keeping people connected.”
Lewiston-Nez Perce Airport has been fortunate to go after and receive many improvement grants over the years, and by thinking ahead and outside of the box, they have capitalized on these investments. Recently, a five-year, $1 million per year infrastructure improvement grant has been awarded to them. The additional $5M grant funds will accelerate the Capital Improvement Program projects including Taxiway D and new snow removal equipment. These two projects will be completed this year.
“It will also be promoting the local area for those who are coming here for tourism reasons,” Isaacs explains. “We’ll advertise local places and events, and provide the community opportunities to promote their services. For example, we have a lot of vineyards around, so some wineries could do samplings. It is a blank canvas that we are exploring what we can do with. This area has become a sort of a destination stop for people, and the airport is more than just the gateway to the community, it is also the first impression or the last impression we make on someone. We need to make sure that when they have four hours of free time in our airport, we are going to keep them entertained, show off what is here, and maybe they will come back.”
Summing up his insights into the importance of Lewiston-Nez Perce Airport, Isaacs concludes, “A lot is happening here at the airport, but it is still serving the community in the same ways it always has. Agricultural is still a big draw here, and we have a lot of people in this region that use the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport as a jump-off point for doing the agricultural aerial application – crop dusting. We also had an awful fire season this year and this became the staging area for many of the water bombers. We had to close a whole taxiway to park them. As for the future, I would love to see an expansion in our passenger service. I think we could have 100,000 passengers, if we had three or four destinations from here; two on the west coast, one on the east, and another flight south. There is no saying what might be possible!”
AT A GLANCE
Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport
WHAT: A public-use airport jointly owned by the City of Lewiston and Nez Perce County
WHERE: Two miles south of Lewiston, Idaho
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