s it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, Barkley Regional Airport is well-positioned to meet the challenges of an ever-changing industry and continue providing vital air service to western Kentucky.
The airport was created in 1941 as a military surplus airport for B-17 bomber crews who were training on the aircraft in Dyersburg, Tennessee. After the war, the government deeded the land to the city and county in 1945, and in 1946, the Paducah/McCracken County Airport saw its first commercial flight.
In 1949, the facility was renamed for Alben Barkley, former Kentucky senator and U.S. vice president, who was instrumental in its creation. The 75th anniversary is not the only milestone observed at the airport this year, said Richard Roof, airport manager.
"Basically, for as long as I've been here, and preceding me, we've always carried some borrowed money indebtedness for airport projects," Roof said. "The fact is that we retired, at least for the time being, our indebtedness."
In addition to operating debt-free, the airport continues to complete expansion and improvement projects.
"We're wrapping up installing LED taxi-runway lights which will be a savings (in electricity), plus a savings in bulb life since they last a lot longer," Roof said. "We have some runway paving projects coming up plus some airfield drainage work that we hope to get into before the end of the year."
In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration has a major improvement project underway, separate from the airport's projects.
"What happened is the FAA determined (in 2014) the control tower needed to be rehabilitated, and rehabilitating it was less expensive than a new one," Roof said.
Air traffic controllers have been operating out of a mobile tower a little over two years.
The first phase of the renovations, replacing the outer "skin" of the tower, replacing windows and re-roofing the cab, has been completed. The second phase will include redoing the electrical systems and installing new consoles.
Barkley Regional Airport and its carrier, SkyWest Airlines, enjoyed a record year in 2015.
SkyWest, based in Utah, contracts with United Airlines to provide daily Paducah-to-Chicago and Chicago-to-Paducah flights. All flights go in and out of O'Hare International Airport. Last November, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded SkyWest another two-year contract to provide the service, the airline's fifth contract since it began providing 50-seat jet service in 2010.
"The ability for people to get almost anywhere with just one plane change in Chicago is a very big advantage for us given the way airlines are centralizing their operations," Roof said.
In 2015, SkyWest and Barkley Regional Airport had the most passengers flying to and from Chicago since the carrier started service in 2010.
Roof said there were 42,149 total passengers in 2015, 20,920 on outbound flights and 21,229 inbound. That total surpassed the previous record set in 2014, when there were 20,644 outbound and 20,911 inbound passengers for a total of 41,555.
SkyWest's forecast for both 2016 and 2017 is 42,000 passengers annually.
So far this year, SkyWest has had a substantial reduction in the number of canceled flights, Roof said.
"That is something neither us or SkyWest has much control over, which is cancellations due to weather at O'Hare," he said. "The weather's been a little bit better."
In honor of the airport's 75th anniversary, Barkley Regional hosted a General Aviation Days observance in May. Different aircrafts were on display, including a World War I-era bi-plane, a Curtiss Jenny replica built to original specifications. Other events are planned during the year, too.
With 2016 being the 75th anniversary of the airport, and its 70th year with commercial service, Roof said he did some research on the number of passengers that have been served over the years.
"Here's an interesting little fact," Roof said. "I could only find records going back to 1955. Since 1955 through July (2016), the total number of passengers has been 3,730,253."