Sunday, May 12, 2002 Airport businesses struggle to stay aloft after attacks By Elizabeth Barczak THE PITTSBURGH (PA) TRIBUNE-REVIEW For Kathryn Moore, turbulence comes with the territory. A retired pilot and owner of a small flight training school at the Beaver County Airport, Moore is struggling to keep aloft the business her father began more than 35 years ago. "Things are looking tough," Moore said. "It's been slow since 9/11." The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., left small airports and the businesses that surround them reeling. Some are rebounding. Others, like Moore's flight school, are finding it hard to recover. Businesses built around the country's 5,000 public use airports took a $400 million blow in the weeks after Sept. 11, according to the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily banned training flights using visual flight rules, as well as flights by news-reporting aircraft, hot air balloons and planes pulling advertising banners. The rules severely limited flights into and out of smaller airports, affecting everything from aircraft maintenance to airport restaurants, according to Sara Walfoort, airport planning manager for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. At Moore Aviation, enrollment has fallen to 15 students, which Moore said is down dramatically from the scores of students who once learned to fly there. The sagging numbers are barely enough to keep three part-time instructors busy. One part-time mechanic works on five small airplanes. "All I have now are the walk-ins - people who just walk in and want to learn to fly," Moore said. "I don't know what is going to happen." No segment of the general aviation industry has been left unscarred. Across the country, flight training schools, charter flight companies, and maintenance and fueling facilities have reported lost revenue, according to the pilots association. "There is a recovery going on, but the impact of that first few weeks is still being felt," said Chris Dancy, association spokesman. "Businesses are still trying to cope with that impact." Flight training schools were hardest hit among the general aviation industry, Dancy said. "It scared a lot of people off," Dancy said. The scare comes at a time when many small airports are struggling to stay open. General aviation airports are closing at an average of one every two weeks, Dancy said. According to the FAA, 169 airports were abandoned in 2000, the most recent statistics available. "Airports are under fire from encroaching civilization," Dancy said. "Airports that once were out in a field are now having development approaching them." Small airports are critical to the national airspace plan and serve to relieve congestion at major airports, Dancy said. Those airports also house the vast majority of flight training schools. There are more than 600,000 certified pilots across the country, according to the FAA. Students seeking a basic private pilot license pay an average of $3,800 for 35 hours of training, according to Pittsburgh Flight Training at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin. Shortly after the attacks, company officials said their 200 students were grounded, costing the company $30,000 to $40,000 a week. Butler Air Inc. at the Butler County Airport has seen a slight increase in the demand for charter service, president Kevin Collins said. Some businesses find it easier and cheaper to charter a plane than to deal with potential delays at major airports, he said. The loss of AirTran Airways' daily service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could boost the number of charters, Collins said. "Some of the woes of the bigger airlines help smaller charter operations in some ways," Collins said. "But in the end, we hate to see any company closing down business." An increase in charter flights since Sept. 11 pushed business up about 25 percent at United Air Group at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, said company vice president Philip Ehrman. "A lot of people became very concerned with airline transportation. One of their options is private aviation. It offers an alternative in terms of safety and convenience," Ehrman said. Rock Ferrone, owner of Rock Airport in West Deer, said he also has seen companies move toward charter flights instead of using larger airports. "We're going to see a major positive impact," he said. Walfoort said people are coming back to smaller airports. "That's the amazing thing," she said. "You're talking about an industry that took a licking and came back strong." Walfoort said the positive trends should continue as the industry distances itself from the setbacks associated with Sept. 11. "The things we're seeing now are really a testament to the importance of aviation in our everyday lives," Walfoort said. Still, a sense of uncertainty lingers throughout much of the industry. When Gene Cargnoni opened Aircraft Supply & Repair Inc. more than 30 years ago, the Allegheny County Airport was bustling. "It was busier back in the old days," Cargnoni said. "Back in the '60s and '70s, airplanes were affordable for upper- and middle-class people." Skyrocketing insurance and fuel costs have cut into the number of personal aircraft flying out of the airport, Cargnoni said. "We always try to remain optimistic, but there are significant challenges facing general aviation airports," Dancy said. "Sept. 11 obviously took a heavy toll." Attached Photo's: Michael Hawk, a line service worker at Butler Air Inc. and nephew of Mark Hawk, guides a Cessna Citation inside the company's hangar at the Butler County Airport. Mark Hawk, a line service worker at Butler Air Inc., walks inside the company's hangar at the Butler County Airport. The company has seen a slight increase in the demand for charter service in the wake of Sept. 11, president Kevin Collins said.