Sunday, May 14, 2017

Central Oregon airports brace for eclipse crowds: Pilots and passengers create space, fuel concerns

Air travelers headed to Oregon for the August 21st total solar eclipse are expected to create unprecedented challenges for the state’s commercial and noncommercial airports, from Portland to John Day.

Around 1 million people will be traveling to Oregon from other states and countries to catch a glimpse of the eclipse, according to Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism agency. A majority is expected to take cars, trucks and RVs, but plenty will be traveling by air.

“To have something that affects all of Oregon like this, it’s really a singular event,” said Matthew Maass, state airports director for the Oregon Department of Aviation.

Redmond Airport, Central Oregon’s only commercial airport, is bracing for completely full flights before and after the phenomenon and will lean on support businesses at the airport to help balance its various obligations.

The event could be just as challenging for Central Oregon’s smaller airports, which have to figure out how to provide fuel and space, largely without knowing how many planes to expect.

“It’s going to be a choreographed dance,” said Nelson Carrick, the general manager of Leading Edge Aviation, which operates from Redmond Airport.

Maass said each of Oregon’s seven commercial airports should expect flights that are completely full — or overbooked, in some cases — for the weeks before and after the total solar eclipse. During those weeks, he said most airports would likely limit vacation time for their employees, to ensure as many people as possible are on hand to help out.

“It won’t be anything different from Thanksgiving,” Maass said.

Allen Kenitzer, regional spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said he doesn’t expect the federal government to impose any additional airspace restrictions during the eclipse.

On average, flights into Redmond Airport were 84 percent full in August 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. With more daily flights into and out of the airport planned for this summer than last, the airport can expect several hundred more passengers daily than it saw last August.

“It definitely does add some people,” said Zachary Bass, Redmond’s airport director.

Bass said the airport added 70 new parking spaces after dealing with overflow this spring. While visitors might have to wait a bit longer than normal for luggage, he said commercial passengers shouldn’t notice much of a difference in services at the airport.

As of Friday afternoon, flights were still available to Redmond from Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and other destinations for dates immediately before and after Aug 21. However, several airline websites showed fewer than five seats remaining on certain flights for those dates.

Nicole Jurgensen, spokeswoman for the Redmond Airport, said none of the airlines operating out of Redmond Airport will be adding more flights for the period surrounding the eclipse.

Bass added that Redmond Airport will be splitting its focus between commercial flights, and making sure that fuel tankers from the U.S. Forest Service, which will be operating from the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center on the northeast side of the airport, have enough fuel and space to land.

As with many aspects of the eclipse in Central Oregon, Madras will be the center of noncommercial flights. Tracy Berg, who manages Madras Airport with her husband, Rob, said the airport is expecting up to 500 planes in the area for the eclipse, ranging from small single-wing aircraft to large corporate jets coming from as far away as Mexico. The airport will be hosting entertainment, in the form of live music, comedy shows and other events, in part because of the large crowds expected at the 2,098-acre facility.

“A lot of (the pilots) are coming and camping under their wings,” Berg said.

While the airport has hosted large events in the past, including the annual Airshow of the Cascades, Berg said this event would be on a different scale. The airfield is not yet fully reserved, but it almost certainly will be full for the weekend of the eclipse.

She added that the airport is in talks with the FAA to bring in a temporary control tower for a couple of days before and immediately after the eclipse, as a way of better managing the flow of small planes into and out of the airport.

“My biggest concern is people flying in at night,” she said.

Those crowds of noncommercial pilots figure to spill over to other airports in the region, including Redmond, Bend and Prineville. Gary Judd, airport manager at Bend Municipal Airport, said he’s only heard from a few people looking to reserve tie-down space so far, but assumes it will fill up once the date creeps closer. Judd said the airport has space for around 80 small planes, but he won’t know how many planes to expect until much closer to the date.

“We’re pretty much at capacity on an everyday basis,” Judd said.

In Redmond, the airport will be working with two companies based at the airport, Leading Edge Aviation and Butler Aircraft Services, to handle the general aviation traffic. In addition to the normal space used by the companies, Carrick said the company has designated a 14-acre parcel owned by the city of Redmond, on the north side of the airport property as overflow parking to accommodate pilots that weekend. When pilots are ready to leave, the company would use an aircraft tug to remove the plane.

“It will be just like valeting cars,” he said.

One possible concern is access to fuel. Kurt Newton, general manager of Butler Aircraft Services, said the company typically orders fuel from Portland, and traffic in the mountain passes from the eclipse could make it difficult to get that fuel to Central Oregon. In 2015, Redmond approved the installation of a 20,000-gallon jet fuel storage tank. Depending on the crowds, Newton said it might not be enough, particularly if there’s a wildfire in the area, and air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service need fuel as well.

“I’ve got a bit of hesitation about the airport being proactive,” he said. 

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