Student pilot Sam Teal, left, 15, of Chesterton, gets weather report training from flight instructor Ed Vargas, of Porter, at Porter County Regional Airport.
At Michigan City Municipal, skydiving and tourism help fill that bill. Griffith-Merrillville Airport relied on businesses like training Chinese pilots and aerial advertising to help pull it through the recession. Porter County Regional continues to put its faith in a comprehensive plan that makes the airport a linchpin for serving existing employers and attracting new ones to the community.
“Since the recession started, there has been a general downshift in pretty much everything in aviation, but we are starting to see an upturn in it,” said Craig Anderson, general manager at Griffith-Merrillville Airport.
Students and staff juggle airplanes in the Eagle Aircraft hangar at Porter County Regional Airport.
Figures on landings and takeoffs collected by the Indiana Department of Transportation confirm the observations of local airport operators, with year-by-year figures for all six Northwest Indiana airports showing declines of varying magnitudes during the last decade.
Those declines for the 2006 to 2015 period range from a significant decline of 57.4 percent at LaPorte Municipal, to a barely perceptible decline of 2.4 percent at Griffith-Merrillville. Other Indiana airports, even the state’s busiest, have suffered similar declines.
Operators of each airport caution that the INDOT figures may not be wholly accurate. Some years were estimated. Much of the data is collected through equipment that may not always be accurate. Also, airports that have significant flight-school activity often show greater variation.
Flight instructor Ed Vargas, left, prepares to go on a refresher flight with student Nick Schrader at Porter County Regional Airport.
But all of the operators contacted during the last month acknowledged they are fighting national trends, including a rapid decline in people acquiring and holding private pilot’s licenses.
The number of people holding private airplane pilot licenses had declined to 162,969 as of 2015, from 245,230 in 2002, a 33.5 percent decline over just 14 years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics. Those holding commercial airplane pilot licenses dropped 20 percent during that same time.
Airport operators see hope on the horizon, with a resurgence in companies’ use of private aircraft and the burgeoning use of drones by both companies and private individuals.
Nick Schrader, left, prepares for a refresher touch-and-go flight at Porter County Regional Airport with flight instructor Ed Vargas.
Dawn of the drones
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require a remote pilot certificate if a drone is used for commercial purposes. One route to that certificate is to already possess or obtain a pilot’s license. That could grow business at flight schools and also provide a pool of pilots who may one day want to sit in the driver’s seat of an aircraft rather than just controlling one from the ground.
The potential for drone use, and for training pilots to fly them, could be particularly robust in an area crisscrossed by pipelines and high-voltage lines serving major industrial establishments such as Northwest Indiana, Anderson said. It appears that drones could be taking over for the manned aircraft that now sometimes monitor those facilities.
Even smaller airports like Michigan City Municipal-Phillips Field are catching the excitement, although they haven’t seen any direct benefit as of yet.
“A lot of companies are using them already,” said Michigan City Airport Manager Jessica Ward. “And there is a lot of interest from airports with the introduction of drones.”
Eagle Aircraft student advocate Holly Starkey, right, chats with Wes Kautzmann, left, and Nate Silveus, both of Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the Eagle hangar at Porter County Regional Airport.
Chicago powers NWI flights
For now, much of the business for Region airports is generated by their proximity to Chicago, and most are looking to increase that part of their business.
Proximity to Chicago is why so much aerial banner advertising is pulled by small planes out of Griffith-Merrillville. Small rural airports like Kentland Municipal entice planes down by offering lower gas prices than airports in the Chicago area. And most of the customers for Skydive Windy City Chicago at Michigan City come out of Chicago.
Ward said it may be hard to believe, but some small aircraft from Chicago land at Michigan City simply to deliver a posse of shoppers to Lighthouse Mall. The airport gives them and others spending a day in town stickers reading: “I came here because of Michigan City Airport.”
Taxpayers help keep ‘em flying
In fact, almost all airports locally — because all except Griffith-Merrillville are taxpayer-subisidized — engage in low-level public relations campaigns to convince the public of their worth. Michigan City Municipal receives about $200,000 per year from the city to supplement on-airfield income, Ward said.
Lansing Municipal receives between $275,000 and $300,000 per year in taxpayer money to pay off borrowings for capital projects, according to airport Manager John DeLaurentiis.
A study done a couple of years ago for the Illinois Department of Transportation pegged the total economic benefit of the Lansing Airport for the community at $20.6 million per year, when all impacts such as wages, off-airport spending by fliers and other expenditures are added up.
“There is a secondary financial benefit to communities in having an airport, but it’s hard for people to understand that,” DeLaurentiis said.
Porter County Regional Airport generates about 60 percent of its income from fuel sales, leases and other on-airport activities, said airport Director Kyle Kuebler. But about 40 percent, or $537,000 in the most recent year, is raised from a tax levy.
County leaders support the subsidy because they think the economic return to the county is well worth it, Kuebler said. The Porter County airport has about a $17.3 million total economic impact on the community, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Aviation Association of Indiana.
The county and city of Valparaiso are centering much of their economic development activity on industrial and business parks surrounding the airport.
“Our goal is to always be the aviation asset for our community’s needs,” Kuebler said. “And we want to be one of those check-marks for a company when they want to come into our community and have aviation needs.”
Gary/Chicago International Airport has suffered the same downturn in landings and takeoffs as other Region airports for much of the last decade. But last year, total aircraft operations rose 14.5 percent as compared to 2014. And so far this year, aircraft operations have increased 12.3 percent as compared to last year.
The increase in flight activity is a hopeful sign for an airport that just last year completed a $174 million project that lengthened its runway to 8,900 feet.
The Gary airport places itself firmly in the greater Chicago market. Executive Director Daniel Vicari said Gary can appeal to cargo and commercial users as well as general aviation by offering “the lowest fees and fuel costs in the region, close proximity to downtown Chicago and the entire metropolitan area, and an expanded runway that can service planes flying to and from destinations further away.”
The Gary airport is the only one that aspires to host regularly scheduled airline service and currently handles large jets that cannot be handled on a regular basis by any other airport in the Region.