By Wendy Stiver
LOCK HAVEN – Think gas is expensive? Ask a pilot. Airport Manager Ed Watson is a man who loves to talk about flying, planes and the fun aspects of his job. Even he will admit that rising costs are keeping some people on the ground these days.
And the soaring price of airplane fuel is just one of the things to worry about, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is searching for monies to keep the Aviation Trust Fund going, and those dollars have to come from somewhere. Its proposed funding package, according to Watson, would kill general aviation in this country. And he’s not alone in that opinion.
The Aviation Trust Fund provides money for airport improvements, Watson said, as well as navigational aids used by both the airlines and general aviation (a term that refers to small airports serving rural areas).
What exactly funds this trust fund?
The current system relies on taxes levied on both fuel and airline tickets. It will expire in September, according to Watson, and a new funding package is needed to replace it.
The proposed package, which has already passed the Senate Commerce Committee, would impose something new – a network of user fees.
“These fees would apply to using the system,” the airport manager said. “If you fly into a certain air space, you pay a fee. If you fly into a certain airport, again you pay a fee.”
CENTS OR NONSENSE?
This new fee is on top of another part of the proposal – a significant fuel tax increase, from 22 cents to 72 cents per gallon, Watson said.
Piper Airport sells fuel for $3.89 a gallon, but the next time Watson buys fuel, he said, the price will likely be forced up by at least 50 cents. The price will still be a bargain compared to airports in major metropolitan areas, he said, where fuel is $5 to $6 right now.
“We are already suffering in this down economy,” he said. “I’ve seen a decline in the last three years of almost 30 percent in the amount of traffic using the airport because of higher gas costs and increased insurance costs.”
The user fee system as proposed would be levied on corporate aircraft only, Watson said, but he wonders out loud just how long it will take before it filters down to all aircraft.
“Any turbine-powered aircraft would have to pay $25 every time it flies, whether it’s a six-seater or a 300-passenger jet liner,” he said. “If you fly into New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, that would be another fee. It will add up to a very high cost.”
The airport is home to a Piper Cheyenne, for example, which would be assessed the new fees right off the bat.
Higher fees will shut out more fliers, Watson said, creating a unique Catch 22 for rural airports. The number of aircraft at an airport determines how much it receives from the Aviation Trust Fund, he explained, so logically as fees get higher, the number of airport users drop off and the FAA doesn’t have to distribute as much money.
“We are approaching a point where we may lose funding here,” he added.
The city airport’s number has dropped by 12 planes recently, bringing it to 53. And where once the waiting list for T-hangars was a long one, the manager said, it is now non-existent.
Mayor Richard P. Vilello Jr. agrees with Watson’s assessment that the current FAA proposal poses a threat to the local airport which, in turn, could lead to economic hardship for the region.
“Anything that has a negative affect on general aviation will hurt the airport and in the long run will hurt Lock Haven,” the mayor said.
“A lot of the people who come here for economic development reasons don’t drive in,” he said. “First Quality, Wal-Mart, Weis all use the airport, as does Mercer Insurance. Businesspeople today are using general aviation.
“People look at general aviation just as recreational flying,” he added. “It is recreational flying but it also is economic development.”
ACCESS TO THE SKY
The 18,000 general aviation airports in the United States, many of them smaller than Lock Haven’s, serve rural communities, according to Watson.
Rural residents headed for the nearest large city can take a small corporate plane from their local airport, Watson said. But user fees could end that option, he said, just as the fees have all but killed general aviation in Europe.
Major airlines aren’t particularly happy about the proposals either, according to a recent Associated Press story.
Airline tickets are charged a tax for the Aviation Trust Fund which helps provide improvements to runways, lighting, fencing and buildings at small airports, Watson said. Apparently, for their part, airlines can’t see what they are getting out of the deal.
Watson’s response is, “We are supporting the same services the airlines use with our fuel taxes.”
The general aviation community isn’t taking the proposed new fee system lying down.
“It’s a matter of our survival,” the airport manager said. “The next generation of flight services being promoted is going to benefit mostly the airlines… and airlines aren’t going to start serving rural communities.”
The user fee proposal already has passed the Senate Commerce Committee, but by only one vote and amid a barrage of protest from pilots, at least according to the Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots’ Association.
AOPA states on its Web site that the “user fee battle” is far from over.
“AOPA wants the Senate Finance Committee to know that the Senate is in for one heck of a fight if there is a continued push for user fees along with an airline tax break at general aviation’s expense,” the site declares.
“We don’t believe general aviation is dead,” Watson said. “That is why we are voicing our opinion now, because we believe the plans the FAA has are detrimental to our future.”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s ultimate goal is to become self-funding, according to John Bryerton, a designated engineering representative of the FAA. The agency is attempting to apply fees to users “everywhere in the system, not just the pilots and airplane users,” he said.
“My opinion is that the FAA’s doing an excellent, excellent job at what they do. Look at aviation safety – It’s the world’s best. You can’t fault them at the job they’re doing,” he added. “When was the last time you have heard of a major airliner crash? Years ago there’d be four or five a year, but nowadays it’s practically unheard of… A little bit of a user fee doesn’t bother me to maintain safety.”
The FAA also is “staffing up” and applying more regulations, Bryerton said, while air traffic continues to increase and the FAA system becomes more and more connected to Homeland Security issues.
As an FAA designee, Bryerton is feeling a different sort of pinch in the wallet – He is required to take recurrent training and this year is the first time the designees are required to pay for it themselves, he said.
Designated mechanics, engineers and inspectors are licensed by the FAA because the agency itself doesn’t have enough staff to cover the entire country, he said. His authority is to approve design, usually for corporations that are modifying airplanes for their own use, through the FAA’s New York office which covers this region.
Paul Everly of Mackeyville is a designated inspector, Bryerton said, and Randy Walters at the airport is a designated mechanic.
Bryerton’s next FAA-required training session is coming up in July and it will cost him $500, he said.
“I will have to raise my rates because I have to somehow recover the expenses of my training,” he said.
Bryerton, who is president of General Aviation Technical Services (GATS) which leases space at the airport, believes he knows the real culprit behind general aviation’s woes: “It’s the legal situation,” he said.
“It’s product liability that’s killing general aviation,” he added. “That’s what killed Piper Aircraft… We sue Piper Aircraft when a Piper airplane crashes.”
The local airport itself is fairly self-sufficient, its manager said, running on a budget of $250,000.
The income includes rent from eight aviation-related businesses that use space at the facility.
“The city of Lock Haven is very supportive,” Watson said. “They see it as an asset to the city, and we have people who work very hard to get us the money we are entitled to for improvements.”
Local aviation also is key to the city’s Airport Business Park, which sits next to the airport, according to the mayor. The city hopes to see aviation-related businesses established on the property.
“We as council, from the very beginning, have looked at how we could make the airport better, more user-friendly and safer,” the mayor said. “We see it as critical to the success of Lock Haven because it’s a gateway to the whole area. We’ve made significant investments in the infrastructure and in professional management because of the importance of the airport… It’s our welcome center. That’s why we’re investing in Hangar 1. A lot of times it’s our first impression.”
The airport boasts new taxiway lighting, new signage and fencing around the perimeter. The next move is to renovate the lobby and airport office space, Watson said.
He also would like to see more flight training opportunities, and he pledged to make space available for any trainer who wants to come here.
“That’s the life-blood of general aviation,” the manager stressed.
Lock Haven University continues to offer a summer course but has to import a flight instructor and plane to make it possible.
Insurance premiums – yet another cost that has to be factored into any plane owner’s budget – can be prohibitively high for trainers, Watson noted.
Some of the planes housed at the airport are owned by groups of pilots who share the expenses of not just fuel and insurance but also maintenance, which can run $1,000 a year, plus hanger rental which is either $175 per month or $125 per month depending upon which hangar is utilized. And that’s a reasonable rate compared with other airports in the region, according to Watson.
Two clubs – the Central Clinton County Flying Club and the Tri-Pacer Flyers – offer another alternative.
Watson said he started the Tri-Pacer Flyers in August to help get as many area residents off the ground as possible. Anyone of any reasonable age may join, whether a pilot already or just serious about earning student pilot certification. The club flies a classic 1958 Piper Tri-Pacer built in Lock Haven and is currently taking new members.
Even the clubs aren’t cheap, though. The Tri-Pacer club carries a $4,000 membership fee, dues of $50 per month and a fee for using the plane of $55 per hour (which includes fuel).
“It sure beats paying $30,000 for your own plane,” the manager said.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Club membership also feeds Lock Haven’s distinctive version of the American dream – earning your wings.
Watson speaks with pride about the local pilots who were swept up by that dream and now love it, live it and help spread the benefits.
A number of them take part in Angel Flights, he said, providing their own planes and paying the costs to fly area residents to major medical facilities. Angel Flights often make all the difference to those on waiting lists for organ transplants – they know that when they get that vital call and time is critical, they have fast transportation ready and waiting.
The airport participates in the program by offering a fuel discount for these special flights, as well as for the Young Eagles program.
For Young Eagles, registered pilots take children or youth, typically ages 8 to 14, up in their planes to introduce them to the world of flying. Just last month, 17 Scouts from Bellefonte came to Lock Haven for a Young Eagles Flight, Watson reported.
“Lots of the kids in that group, and adults, had never been in a small plane before,” Watson said. “It didn’t used to be like that.”
Anyone interested in earning a pilot’s license must do some planning, as it can cost from $5,000 to $7,000, he said. Most kids can’t afford it, middle-aged adults spend their money on their families and some retirees convince themselves they are too old to accomplish it, he said.
Bryerton advises, “If you want to learn to fly, join the Army, join the Air Force.”
The job market for pilots also can be discouraging, Watson said.
“I thought I was going to be an airline pilot, but my heart is really in general aviation,” he said. “As a kid, I used to go by the airport here and look at the planes. This was my dream – to fly one of the planes on this runway.”
His timing wasn’t quite right, however. Just as he was getting out of school and his career started to lift off, Piper Aircraft Corp. began its final descent in Lock Haven.
Watson took up flying anyway and was an airport customer here and elsewhere before becoming the local manager. He jumped into the job with both feet and used his unique perspective to make some pilot-friendly changes.
Watson welcomes all manner of aircraft to the city airport, from charter flights to the LifeFlight medical helicopter to the Goodyear Blimp which occasionally ties up here.
Planes for aerial mapping and spraying often use the facility, he said, and Rafko made several flights here from Canada before moving into a former Piper Aircraft building.
Although gliders have to bring their own tow planes with them, it’s not unusual to see them land here – or to see Watson running alongside one supporting a side wing as the craft takes to the sky again.
Free shuttle service takes travelers to nearby restaurants, hotels, the shopping district.
The Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven Fly-In is the airport’s biggest week, the manager said – fuel sales alone average 6,000 gallons during the event. People fly here from all over to celebrate Piper Aircraft, their favorite planes and the state of general aviation.
This year’s Fly-In will be the 22nd such event and will be held June 20 to 23. As always, Watson said, it will be a good chance for the airport – and Lock Haven – to showcase what it has to offer.
It’s all a part of keeping the dream alive.
“Positive things are happening here and I want to see that continue,” Watson said.
“General aviation is one of the freedoms this country has,” he added. “I would just hate to
see that go away.”