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Pilots unhappy with ABIA General Aviation report

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin’s Aviation Department does not appear any closer to opening up additional space for general aviation at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and the frustration in the general aviation community was showing last night when the staff report was presented to the Austin Airport Advisory Committee.

The bottom line on the report is the expectation that additional general aviation at Bergstrom would result in increased delays for commercial operations; more time to fuel and schedule planes; and would delay construction of a new runway, which could cost upwards of $1 billion.

Stephen Dick presented the overview of the 20-page report, noting that ABIA had spent $18.3 million on general aviation since the airport opened in 1999. The pilots in attendance dismissed that point, saying that the $18.3 million was on top of where the airport had started: at zero.

According to the report’s conclusion, the cost of fuel and hangar facilities was comparable to industry standards. While maintenance services could stand some improvement, the field-based operators were in compliance with city requirements. And the economic impact of general aviation was well within line for general aviation services provided at commercial service airports, although it was significantly below the financial impact of airports devoted solely to general aviation. For instance, the Addison Airport has a financial impact of $610 million. 

“ABIA will continue to accommodate the aviation demand in the region through responsible development of the airport,” the Department of Aviation’s Planning and Engineering Department wrote in the report. “While the issues raised by the subcommittee need to be examined, ABIA has to be developed on the basis of sound management, promotion of economic development activities and the provision of customer service for its primary role in the Central Texas region.”

This was definitely not what the attendees from the general aviation community wanted to hear. Dan Sullivan, who represented the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, interrupted the presentation to ask whose interests the Aviation Department actually was representing and, speaking to the AAAC, suggested that the report was not credible and should not be taken to Council.

Steve Hadley, the regional representative for the National Business Aviation Association, told the commission the report was highly prejudiced.

“The bottom line is that I don’t agree with your bottom line,” said Hadley, addressing Dick directly. “I see the impact of general aviation to business – and the development of business – not only for general aviation and the airport but also your community.”

Council members have not warmed up to the idea of expanding general aviation at ABIA, in part because the airport is self-supported. Hadley asserted that more business at the airfield would mean more overall business for the city. 

Dick was so clearly uncomfortable with the impromptu rebuttals from the audience that Commissioner Richard Hatfield, who chaired the general aviation subcommittee, eventually asked the handful of representatives of the general aviation community to refrain from comments until the report was presented.

It was clear the subcommittee’s recommendations – which worked within the framework of the Aviation Department’s assessment – would not satisfy the general aviation community. Hatfield, who lost two subcommittee members to the recent elections and reconfiguration of the various boards and commissions, was left to present most of the recommendations for the committee: 

  • City support for to assure proper development around other general aviation airfields in the area, such as Bird’s Nest. Bird’s Nest, and airfields like it, need to create land use and height-hazard maps to maintain long-term viability;
  • The reduction or elimination of transient aircraft ramp service fee. Any plane that touches down in Austin must pay a fee, even if the plane is only stopping to do something like change a tire. Also, the airport lacks a fee schedule because field-based operators often charge based on the frequency of touch downs;
  • Continued support for the development of new field-based operations and general aviation facilities at ABIA. New operators should have the same – or similar – advantages to the two existing operators on the airport’s property. The airport also should review its rates and fees on an annual basis; and
  • Encourage the creation of a self-fueling facility for local aircraft owners. The city’s study found that the two current field-based operators charged higher rates than other airports but that competition appeared to have no effect on lowering prices.
The recommendations, in resolution form, passed unanimously, although a quorum of only four out of the commission’s seven members were present.

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