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Commission OKs new high end hangar for ABIA

Thursday, April 10, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Airport Advisory Commission approved a new lease and hangar development agreement with Ascend Development at Tuesday night’s AAAC meeting, but not without some protest and not without concern from commissioners over the airport’s lack of involvement in the future of general aviation in Central Texas.

 

AAAC’s biggest complaint about the Ascend agreement – which would cater to a high-end general aviation clientele – was the fact the commission had little to no time to review the agreement. It’s not the first time the commission has raised a concern about its minimal role in the direction of the airport, and Assistant City Attorney David Peterson tried to sooth the concerns by saying that many proposals come before the airport but only those considered viable actually make it to the AAAC agenda.

 

“You have given us 15 to 20 minutes to look at it and decide to authorize it, based on what little we know right now,” said Commissioner Philip Rosenbaum. “I’m not sure who is to blame, but we need to know who can correct this structure, because it is a bad structure. It really puts us in a predicament that is unfair.”

 

Actually, the members of AAAC general aviation subcommittee – Rosenbaum, Scott Madole and Richard Hatfield – were the most vocal about the Ascend proposal. The three held a meeting last October to outline concerns in the general aviation community, and members of that community were on hand Tuesday night to protest the Ascend proposal.

 

“I wish Gary Briggs well. He and his company sound like a good deal for certain clientele for the airport,” said Secretary Jay Carpenter of the Texas Aviation Association. “But I just have to address Phil’s point that we have been blindsided… We as an association had asked the commission to form a subcommittee to address a lot of the concerns about general aviation, and that subcommittee has worked hard to gather information from pilots and from citizens so they can make good logical decisions and recommendations to the city.”

 

The inference was that the Ascend agreement was not a good deal for general aviation at the airport. Peterson and Briggs agreed that the Ascend proposal was aimed at a high-end niche for the airport market, one that would discount most of the general aviation market that is underserved at Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

 

The commission appeared to be on the precipice of tabling approval of the proposal to send it back to subcommittee. Then Briggs made an impassioned speech, which outlined the limitation of the proposed site. Briggs said development of his acreage at ABIA would be limited to a high-end hangar. To develop the site as a hangar for general aviation use was impossible from an economic standpoint.

 

Hatfield then apologized to Briggs for “getting in the middle of a family fight” over process, saying he was certain the Ascend proposal was a solid one. When Hatfield’s speech was done, the proposal got unanimous approval from the AAAC. Hatfield admitted it would be unfair to punish Ascend for the airport’s shortcomings.

 

Those shortcomings, as outlined by Hatfield in a subcommittee presentation, were the complete disregard for the Central Texas general aviation community.


Testimony from the general aviation community – and the presentation from Hatfield – would indicate that Austin Bergstrom International Airport has done little to address the end of the spectrum that includes the “low-end” general aviation community. As Hatfield pointed out, no community in Central Texas appeared willing to take on a general aviation airport in discussions with the Texas Department of Transportation.

 

TxDOT also has been unwilling to add a third runway at Bergstrom, saying that it was too close to other runways to yield any kind of viable economic outcome. Hatfield said it was the opinion of the general aviation subcommittee – after hearing extensive testimony from the general aviation community – the city should step up to provide some kind of Central Texas reliever for general aviation.

 

This was clearly a touchy subject with ABIA staff, including Executive Director Jim Smith, who did not see general aviation to be a moneymaker at an airport already facing shrinking federal support. In his presentation, however, Hatfield outlined a number of recommendations from the subcommittee: future flight-based operation leases with fair and reasonable prices; encouragement for fixed base operators, or FBOs, Signature and Atlantic to install self-serve fueling facilities; new negotiations over fees to transient GA airports; and support for additional general aviation facilities in the area.

 

Pilot Dan Sullivan of the Austin Chamber of Commerce argued for more creative thinking at the airport. He criticized the staff’s lack of initiative on the use of former National Guard hangars that currently exist on airport property. And Rosenbaum pointed out the city had gone out of its way to negotiate better than favorable contracts with initial FBOs to make sure the airport succeeded. Five years after the fact, though, it was time to look at those contracts with an eye to the future, he said.


H
atfield noted that general aviation participation at Bergstrom had continued to decrease, even as the population of the region doubled. Some of that had to do with the stranglehold created with current FBOs, Hatfield admitted. He, and the general aviation subcommittee, urged the full commission to consider greater support for an important sub-set of aviation at ABIA.

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