Friday, December 22, 2017

Humboldt County, California seeks to revamp airports after years of ailing budgets

A small plane sits near hangars at Murray Field Airport (KEKA) in northern Eureka next to Highway 101 on Wednesday as a rainbow fades behind them. 

Humboldt County’s Aviation Division must undergo a quick and extensive revamping lest the county face significant economic consequences, according to a 10-month review of the county Aviation Division.

The changes being recommended by the Volaire Aviation consulting firm will be expensive, running in the millions of dollars over several years, and will require the county to make difficult decisions about whether it will keep all of its existing six airports as they are.

“The airport system is one the largest economic drivers in this entire county,” Volaire Aviation’s managing partner Jack Penning said to the county Board of Supervisors this week. “It’s tens of millions of dollars a year in economic impact and has the potential to have much more impact on that in the future.”

Public Works Department Director Tom Mattson, whose department runs the Aviation Division, and others involved in the county’s aviation sector said Thursday that the changes and the costs that come with them will be worth the risk.

“The airports are so important to our economy that I think anything we can do to enhance them is going to be better for us,” Mattson said.

The county’s Aviation Division, which manages the six airports, has run a budget deficit for the past nine years, and was expected to have a negative balance of about $500,200 by June 30, according to county budget reports from earlier this year.

The county’s aviation budget is supposed to generate its own revenue, but a lack of airliners and passengers at the Humboldt County airport in McKinleyville has led to decreased revenues, Mattson said.

The county currently only has one airline service, United, which only travels to San Francisco. PenAir previously provided service to Portland, Oregon, but ended its service to Humboldt County in August before filing for bankruptcy.

“Back when we had three airlines, we had three payers,” Mattson said. “You had a lot more customers renting more cars, using airport parking, and the revenue was much higher. With the loss of those airlines, and not being able to raise revenue elsewhere, that’s what really caused our problem.”

While loans have worked to cover costs, the county budget has warned repeatedly through the years that the Aviation Division would eventually require county General Fund money to stay afloat.

But Penning said that if the county implements certain recommendations, the airport could be operating in a surplus within five years.

As the first step to addressing the aviation issues, Penning said the county should make a separate Airports Department headed by an airports manager or director. After a director is hired, Penning recommended that the county begin to implement other long-term recommendations such as enhanced marketing, standardizing hangar lease rates, new parking systems, increasing parking costs, building a rental car service station and determining the role of the county’s six airports.

Aviation Division program coordinator Emily Jacobs said that many of these items will require community input.

“I think that some community feedback and some real analysis is necessary before a plan of action is formulated,” she said Thursday.

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to direct staff to explore the costs to create a new airports department and the costs to hire an interim airports director, which Mattson had recommended.

“It’s going to allow that division to grow and hopefully get a person in there that understands not only government, but also private sector business that can really get more revenue in to the airport system,” Mattson said,

The Aviation Division’s staffing levels were the lowest Volaire had ever seen in the 110 airports it has worked on, Penning said, with 10 people operating six airports over a distance of 82 miles. Penning said one of the first tasks the director should tackle would be to reevaluate staffing levels and organization.

“Even in the division today, we have employees who are unsure who their direct supervisor is,” Penning said. “... Right now we have people who are doing everything from changing lights on the runway to fueling planes to handling firefighting to cleaning bathrooms.”

An airports manager and increased staff will come at a cost of about $300,000-$400,000 each year, Penning said.

Despite the cost increase, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to begin exploring the plan. Fourth District Supervisor and board Chairwoman Virginia Bass described the process as an investment.

“I know it’s scary to think about how do we pay for something. Sometimes you have to take a risk,” Bass said Tuesday.

In his presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Penning was blunt about how the new name of the county’s main airport in McKinleyville was resonating in the community. Or wasn’t.

As part of their report, Penning said Volaire asked hundreds of people if they knew the name of the county’s main airport.

“Not a single person knew the new name of the airport. Not a single person,” he said.

For those who don’t know, it’s the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport. The name was changed by the board in 2015 from Arcata-Eureka Airport with the idea that putting the words “California” and “redwood” in the name would attract both passengers and airliners. But Penning said the vast majority of people still know the airport by its original name or by its code, ACV.

Even other airports like San Francisco International confuse the name, with arrival and departure screens either naming the destination as Eureka or Arcata, Penning and Mattson said.

Penning said they are recommending the county “once and for all” name the airport the Arcata-Eureka Airport.

Part of Volaire’s recommendations were an increased focused on marketing and branding. Penning recommended the board budget between $45,000 to $75,000 in the near future to market the airport.

Another recommendation from Volaire was to formalize the Fly Humboldt organization, which includes businesses, county officials and community members who have worked to raise money to attract airliners using a revenue guarantee.

Penning is recommending that the group formalize into an independent nonprofit.

In the meantime, Jacobs said the airport is focusing on its efforts this year to install a solar array — which Penning said will also work to provide savings to the county — as well as a new aircraft rescue firefighting facility at the Humboldt County airport.

Volaire’s recommendations and the board’s actions will open up further opportunities, Jacobs said.

“This change really reflects the evolution of airport management and how it’s changed throughout the world,” she said. “We want to thank the supervisors for taking this step.”

Original article can be found here ➤

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