Sunday, June 25, 2017
Many small airports without passenger service face financial problems
By DAVID BROOKS
The Concord (NH) Monitor
A Piper Aircraft Archer II departs the Concord Municipal Airport on Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Much of Concord Municipal Airport’s woes exist because it is a general aviation airport, meaning that it only serves private airplanes.
Only three New Hampshire airports – Manchester, Pease and Lebanon – have passenger service, although Concord has been home to such service in the past.
A company called Northeast Airlines flew a passenger route around New Hampshire that stopped in Concord from 1945 through 1962. A couple of short-lived companies tried local passenger service after that but since 1980, when Precision Airlines ended its Concord-Manchester-Nashua-Boston route, no commercial passengers have flown out of the airport. And because the FAA closed the control tower in the early 1980s, when the third runway was shut, scheduled passenger service is unlikely to ever return.
As a general aviation airport, Concord has been buffeted by factors that have hit the entire industry. These include the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which grounded all aviation and added greatly to small-airport security costs, fluctuating prices for aviation fuel, which is more expensive than regular gas, and the 2008 financial crisis, which clobbered the private-plane industry.
"Before 2008 we had about 120 planes as fixed-based aircraft. After the recession that number plummeted. We got to the point where we were maybe under 70, and a lot of them were just sitting there, rusting in place,” said Carlos Baia, Concord’s deputy city manager. “Now we’re up to about 85 – still not great, but getting better.”
Dave Rolla is the airport manager, and is co-owner with his brother, Robert, of Concord Aviation Services, the private firm that runs the airport, known as the fixed-based operator. The city owns the airport but the FBO is its public face, selling fuel, offering lessons, providing mechanics and otherwise interacting with the pilots that use the airport.
“From 2007 to 2008 we lost 50 percent of fuel volume. From 2008 to 2009 we lost 50 percent more,” Rolla said, noting that profits from selling aviation fuel make up about two-third of Concord Aviation Services’ revenue. “It was a spectacular challenge to stay in business.”
Before the recession the company had 28 full-time and on-call employees; now it has 5 full-timers and 10 on call, including four maintenance techs and four flight instructors, who handle about 20 students learning to fly at $50 an hour.
Beyond those problems, general aviation is in a long-term slump as the Baby Boomer generation gets too old to fly and younger generations aren’t showing as much enthusiasm for the sport, which hurts small airports.
The industry doldrums were reflected when Concord Aviation Services’ contract as fixed-based operator came up recently.
The city notified “every single fixed-base operator in the Northeast U.S. to bid. We got nobody to respond except Concord Aviation Services,” Baia said.
Nationally, the number of light aircraft has been stagnant for at least a decade at around 200,000 total, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, while the number of registered aircraft in New Hampshire has fallen.
The state says that the number of active aircraft in New Hampshire, those that took off and landed during the year, was 140 per 100,000 residents in 2001, but down to 100 per 100,000 residents in 2015, the largest decline in New England. That partly reflects the end of the flight-training program at Daniel Webster College in Nashua.
Concord is not controlled by a tower – it sits three miles north of the controlled airspace around Manchester-Boston Regional Airport – so it’s hard to know exactly how many operations, the term for take-offs and landings, occur here. But the state estimates operations there have fallen from a peak of about 90,000 to about 60,000 today – of which 7,000 are related to the National Guard and about half are “itinerant,” meaning planes not based in Concord. The Division of Aeronautics expects the usage of the airport to continue declining.