The Des Moines airport would be more efficient and competitive if it were governed by an aviation authority, say backers of a proposal that will be debated Monday during a public hearing.
“Airport service in Des Moines is a critically important part of our ability to attract and maintain business and commerce,” City Manager Rick Clark said. “The fact is we have pretty high rates here despite a lot of efforts to change that.
“It’s time for us to make some bold decisions and go in some new directions. The aviation authority is a good step forward. It’s not that anybody has done a bad job. We simply need to do better.”
The airport is now owned and operated by the city and governed by a seven-member board.
Some Des Moines City Council members have questioned how members would be appointed to the authority’s board. Others are concerned about whether airport employees would still have access to the Civil Service Commission, a citizen panel that hears appeals that deal with discipline given to municipal employees.
Each City Council member has an appointment to the current airport board.
The aviation authority board would shrink to five members, all appointed by the mayor but subject to council approval.
“I continue to have heartburn over the board structure that is proposed,” Councilwoman Christine Hensley said. “I would prefer to see seven. I could live with five, but the bigger issue is losing a voice as a council to actually make an appointment to the board.”
Hensley, along with council members Chris Coleman and Halley Griess, has voiced support for a pool of board applicants recommended by council members. Mayor Frank Cownie has said he has no objections to that idea.
Councilman Brian Meyer said he plans to vote against the aviation authority because he’s concerned its creation would amount to the council “abdicating our responsibility of oversight.”
Under proposed changes, the city would transfer titles to all equipment, buildings and personal property to the aviation authority. All contracts would be also assumed by the authority. The city would maintain ownership of the land, and the airport authority would sign a long-term lease.
It is estimated that half of U.S. airports have the aviation authority structure, an operating model that has reportedly increased over the past 40 years.
James Erickson, current chairman of the city’s airport board, recently told the council that although Des Moines has fared well of late in national rankings as a great place to work and do business, “airline service is always a question mark on those surveys.”
About 940,000 people board planes at the airport each year. Erickson said that number should be doubled.
“We need better facilities and more frequent and economical air service if Des Moines is to continue to grow,” he said.
Passenger traffic at the airport has been relatively flat, and air cargo has decreased since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Major airport facilities are about 50 years old.
“While we’re constantly remodeling and mending them, they need a massive upgrade, and we’re going to have to do something,” airport board member Edgar Hansell told council members.
Erickson and Hansell told the council the plan would make Des Moines more competitive with airports in Kansas City, Minneapolis and Omaha. The one thing those airports have that Des Moines does not is Southwest Airlines.
Southwest is in the process of acquiring AirTran Airways, which has a small presence in Des Moines. Airport officials hope that will help leverage Southwest to come to Des Moines.
The airport has a $26 million annual operating budget and a $30 million capital improvements budget.
Currently, the city does not provide any revenue to the airport. The aviation authority proposal would be “revenue neutral,” Clark has said.
The authority would have power to borrow money and issue bonds but would have no taxing authority.
Councilman Skip Moore said he has misgivings about the possibility that airport authority employees could be without access to the Civil Service Commission.
“I’ve made it clear in the past that regardless of what happens, it sounds like our employees out there are going to lose out on this deal,” Moore said.
Councilman Robert Mahaffey has voiced support for the idea.
“Businesses are going to benefit if we can get a better rate on our flights going in and out,” he said at a December council meeting.
If council members decide in the future that an aviation authority is ineffective, they can vote to dissolve it.