Turbulent skies for some small airports

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Abrams Municipal Airport in Grand Ledge is a small, publicly owned airport that handles mostly personal and charter traffic.
Like many of its counterparts across Michigan and nationally, Abrams has watched small-scale aviation business – and thus revenue – shrink in the continuing aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Although Abrams is making its lowest profits in years, netting about $5,000 last year, its management predicts business will bounce back.
Abrams is one of about 240 public use airports and heliports in the state, according to the Department of Transportation (MDOT).
They range from 17 with commercial airline service – such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport and ones in Flint, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Pellston, Alpena, Traverse City and Lansing – to small privately owned and municipal ones, like Abrams. Almost 32.4 million passengers got on or off at those with commercial service last year, according to MDOT.
The city of Grand Ledge owns Abrams, which has revenue from farming the surrounding land, payments from the National Guard that operates there, fuel sales and hangar rentals.
According to its operations budget, Abrams collects $19,000 annually from the National Guard and $24,000 from hangar rentals. It receives $150,000 annually from the federal government for infrastructure, said City Administrator Jon Bayless, who also manages the airport
Bayless said maintenance costs eat up most of the operational income. Most of its budget goes to mowing the grass and plowing snow from the runways.
Dave Powers, director of operations at GrandAir Aviation Inc., said, “If this airport had to exist on generating its own revenue, or any airport for that matter, it wouldn’t work.”
GrandAir, a charter service, is the airport’s fixed base operator and offers flight training.
Powers said Abrams is better than most other general aviation airports at saving money, although it still needs federal funds for paving runways and building improvements.
In February, MDOT named Branch County Memorial Airport in Coldwater as Michigan’s Airport of the Year. The department cited it for “efficient use of limited available funding, and for maintaining strong community support for the general aviation airport, which has about 12,000 takeoffs and landings annually.”
Meanwhile, belts could tighten significantly for rural and small-city commercial airports as Congress considers Republican proposals to cut federal subsidies that support service at about 150 cities nationally, including six in Michigan.
For example, the federal Essential Air Service program gave Muskegon County Airport the smallest subsidy in Michigan last year, $660,770, and Manistee County Blacker Airport the largest, $1.8 million, U.S. Department of Transportation figures show. The state’s other four that may be affected are in the Upper Peninsula: Escanaba, Hancock/Houghton, Ironwood and Iron Mountain/Kingsford.
MDOT Director Kirk Steudle commended small general-aviation airports for their ability to maintain budgets, but said small airports must still make sacrifices, even with excellent management.
Given the state’s economic problems, they can’t count on MDOT to rescue them from financial problems, Steudle said. “We internally have stopped a whole bunch of services we used to provide, primarily because we don’t have the money, and we don’t have the people.”
Bayless said the weak economy means many people can’t afford to fly small planes like they used to. Just a few years ago, it was common for private plane owners, including working-class people who owned property in Northern Michigan, to fly back and forth.
“We’re in a recession right now,” said Bayless. “And general aviation has slowed down a lot over the last four years.”
There are about 7,000 planes registered in the state, according to MDOT.
While money is a key factor in that slow-down, security also deters many people from flying their own planes.
“This whole thing got stung with 9/11, and it never really did come back,” Bayless said. “You go back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and there was a whole lot more going on then than there is now. It was coming back in the 1990s, then you had 9/11 – and it really did in aviation.”
GrandAir’s Powers said that while the privately owned component of aviation has been hurt, there have been advantages on the corporate side.
For example, with commercial airline security tighter than ever, some corporate executives find small planes a better way to travel.
“When they go to the airport it’s a three-to-four-hour process to get on an airliner. If they went on a corporate jet or a charter airplane, they can get there, have the meeting and be back in their office in two hours,” Powers said.
Powers said that as security gets more onerous in commercial airports and the economy improves, more people will likely turn to charter planes.
“What you have is a typical story – the rich are getting richer and the middle ground is going away. The gap is spreading, but there is still business,” he said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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