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DelDOT nears new deal for Dover Civil Air Terminal

Katie Tabeling
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In 2009, this is what state and local officials envisioned as a possible development for the the Civil Air Terminal | Courtesy of The Delaware River & Bay Authority

DOVER — With a little more than a year left on an agreement that allows civilian aircraft to take off Dover Air Force Base runways, a new deal that would take Kent County businesses to new heights may be soon reached.

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) Assistant Planning Director Stephanie Johnson said that the state is finalizing negotiations with the U.S. Department of Defense for the joint use agreement on the Civil Air Terminal, a 20-acre facility with two of the largest runways in the state. The new deal would raise takeoffs and landing from 13,500 to 25,000 per year, creating more possibilities for air cargo, airline service operations and redevelopment.

“We want to maximize the usage of this facility in a way that’s an economic driver for Kent County as well as the state,” Johnson told Kent County leaders on Aug. 13. “We recognize that we have people stationed at the DAFB who love Delaware, but if we’re not providing opportunities for them to apply their work experience, we may lose them. We have already in the past.”

Other key terms in the renegotiation with joint use agreement include expanding its term to 50 years, updating landing fees to reflect fair share of maintenance costs which may be updated every three years, removing a requirement for all aircraft to obtain permission to land or takeoff. The Civil Air Terminal would also be designated by the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems as well.

The Civil Air Terminal, owned by DelDOT and operated by the Delaware River & Bay Authority, has two runways under 10,000 and 13,000 feet. It’s one of a few in the nation long enough to land a space shuttle. When it first opened in 1982, it was envisioned as a host for a regional airline service, but air traffic levels never materialized. 

Today, operations — counted as a landing or a takeoff — are less than 1%. Most of the arrivals are for NASCAR race teams competing at Dover International Speedway, performers for the Firefly Music Festival, and more recently athletes competing in lacrosse tournaments at the DE Turf complex. Air cargo carrier Atlas Air  is among the most frequent users of the terminal, since both have contracts with the DAFB.

With warehousing and distribution targeted as high-demand sectors for central Delaware, Kent County and Dover leaders believe that expanding the Civil Air Terminal’s touchdown and takeoff cap and investing in its facilities can draw more commercial air cargo carriers. The terminal is close to Route 1 and can reach many states in the Mid-Atlantic region within an eight-hour drive, opening more opportunities for freight transportation.

Right now, the Civil Air Terminal has a 1,900-square-foot building, a 6-acre aircraft parking ramp, a jet fueling facility with a 5,000-gallon fuel storage tank and a 54-foot taxiway. But to best attract more commercial air cargo planes, the terminal needs more room for aircraft to park and expedite the loading process. A 2009 study showed that Atlas and other cargo aircraft fly their planes to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to park overnight due to regulations at the time only allowing planes to be on the base for five hours.

Estimates of the cost of ferrying Atlas aircraft, which fly Boeing 747s,  between Dover and JFK in 2009 were roughly $30,000 per round trip. An expanded tarmac would help cut down on those costs, and possibly can attract more jumbo jets to Dover. DelDOT has already secured an easement to build another 75-foot wide taxiway to assist in routing multiple planes at once, according to Johnson. 

Another study, this time a 2019 market assessment, recommends that DelDOT start a request for proposal process to solicit a fixed-base operator (FBO), or an organization that runs the terminal and provides services like maintenance and hangaring. All these uses would work in tandem with the neighboring Kent County Aeropark, which includes 13 acres, and could open more possibilities for Garrison Oak which is less than 5 miles away. The new facility would be branded as the Central Delaware Aviation Complex.

But before county and state business leaders can fully realize the potential of the Civil Air Terminal, an environmental assessment of paving acres of land for more tarmac and other uses, as well as air quality and noise impacts for additional flights, would need to be done. After two years, the environmental assessment has been drafted and now awaits approval from the Department of Defense of the Air Mobility Command, Johnson said.

Once the environmental assessment is done, the joint use agreement can be signed. The current agreement expires on Dec. 8, 2022.

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