Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lantana, Florida: Airstrip with old-time charm braces for modern ‘glass and chrome’ upgrade

Saturday, May 25, 2013,  3:24 p.m.

By Jennifer Sorentrue - Palm Beach Post

LANTANA —  For more than six decades, Florida Airmotive has managed Palm Beach County’s general aviation airport, a relatively quiet, homespun facility at the corner of Lantana Road and Congress Avenue.

The main terminal is designed to look like a Florida farmhouse, with wooden benches and model airplanes dangling from the ceiling. The airport’s main security gate is open during business hours, allowing cars to drive onto the airfield. Pilots store boats and cars in their rented hangars. Pets watch as their owners tinker with airplanes.

Founded in 1941 by Owen Gassaway Jr., a fixture in the county’s aviation community, the company is now led by his son. Gassaway died in 2007, and Owen Gassaway III is now responsible for maintaining the small terminal, leasing hangars and selling fuel.

That may be about to change.

Florida Airmotive’s lease with the county expires next year and county managers are seeking bids from companies interested in taking over Palm Beach County Park Airport, the official name of the Lantana facility. Bids are due by June 21.

Under the new lease, the county will require major renovations, including making the operator responsible for building a new terminal and improving security. A major face-lift appears in store for the airport, where 120,000 planes take off and land each year.

The change has worried some pilots and business owners, who fear it will result in higher rents and more stringent regulations and insurance requirements. Many have grown fond of the airport’s old-time charms.

“Those are the things that make this airport unique,” said Paul Pefley, who runs a company specializing in airplane modifications at the airport. “Going into an airport like this is like riding on an airliner in the ’60s. It is nostalgic.”

But Pefley and other business owners say a new operator would also bring needed improvements.

Many hangars need repair. Several can no longer be used to store aircraft.

The airport is in a “state of disrepair,” said Bruce Pelly, county airports director. The changes are meant to improve the buildings and facilities, not to bring new types of aircraft to the field, he said.

“The goal is not to change the character of the airport,” Pelly said. “We aren’t looking to do anything differently. We want to replace what needs to be replaced. We want to make it nicer and more secure.”

Gassaway is skeptical. He said his lease with the county expires in March and that he isn’t planning to bid on the new contract. He did not attend a mandatory meeting this month for companies interested in bidding.

County officials are looking for more “glass and chrome,” Gassaway said. “It is just a different world.”

Mike O’Neill, co-owner of Palm Beach Aircraft Propeller, said the improvements probably will bring new airplanes and more business to the airport. O’Neill said he also looked forward to security upgrades that would prevent semi-trucks and delivery trucks from driving onto the airfield.

“Some of the things have to be cleaned up,” he said.

Others airport users complain about the cost of fuel there. They say it is cheaper to fill up at other airports in the region.

High fuel prices discourage pilots and airplane owners from using businesses based at the airport, said Reese Leach, co-owner of Windward Aviation.

Leach said she is monitoring the county’s bid process. She hasn’t decided whether her business, which operates out of three hangars, will stay at the airport once a new operator takes over.

“If the company makes it so that my business is easier to run, then I say, ‘Come ahead,’ ” Leach said.

But she also would be prepared to leave if the changes become too great.

“It is a wait-and-see thing,” she said.


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