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Recession a downer for Modesto Airport
February 18, 2011
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  • By Ken Carlson

    February 14, 2011

    The 14 empty hangars at Modesto Airport are a symptom of the poor economy – and a sign of fiscal trouble for the city.

    In 2007, just before the recession began, every one of the 119 general aviation hangars at Modesto Airport was leased to aircraft owners and 15 names were on a waiting list, said Jerome Thiele, the city’s airport manager.

    Since then, many private pilots and business owners have decided their aircraft are a luxury or expense they can no longer afford. Many have sold their airplanes and canceled leases for hangar space, Thiele said.

    The airport, operated by the city of Modesto, stands to lose almost $42,000 in annual lease revenue from the empty T-shaped hangars, which are designed to house single-engine and twin-engine planes.

    Those who still own airplanes are flying less often, and commercial airline traffic is down.

    Besides the empty hangars, the airport is getting less revenue from taxes on fuel, commercial passengers, landings and car rentals.

    Thiele believes the city’s airport enterprise fund will take in $964,000 in the coming fiscal year, an 11 percent drop from this year.

    The airport, owned by the city and Stanislaus County, usually has a $1 million annual budget.

    “We are not alone,” Thiele said. “Stockton has several (hangar) vacancies and Merced has several. É We see the owners come in and surrender their keys and their leases. Some say they are moving out of the area because of their jobs. Some pilots are getting old and no longer fly.”

    The airport cut three part-time positions this year and the budget next year is going to be tight, Thiele said.

    Last week, the City Council approved a plan to offer promotional discounts to try to fill the hangars. The airport will spend $2,100 printing and mailing postcards to 3,000 registered aircraft owners in three Bay Area counties, inviting them to a March 12 open house at Modesto Airport.

    The city will offer three months of free rent for new tenants signing a one-year lease. The average monthly rent for the hangars is $250, with the largest ones going for $415. Thiele noted that Bay Area airports charge more for hangar space and still have waiting lists.

    Airport has taken a series of hits

    The recession has been a turbulent time for Modesto Airport.

    SkyWest Airlines ended its four daily United Express flights between Modesto and Los Angeles in June 2008, citing high fuel costs and a lack of profits from the serv- ice.

    United Express still provides service to San Francisco.

    After hitting a peak of 51,587 in 2007, the airport’s passenger head count steadily descended to 38,825 in 2008 and then 24,334 in 2010. There were 43,593 takeoffs and landings by all aircraft in 2010, down from 81,431 in 2006.

    In January 2009, 10 instructors, mechanics and office workers lost their jobs when the Modesto Flight Center shut its doors after 26 years. The flight school had been sold to a new owner in 2007 after the school’s co-founder, Dave Mesenheimer, was killed in a plane crash the previous year.

    Modesto Aviation started a smaller flight school at the airport later in 2009.

    Richard Braner, the owner of Pacific Aircraft Service, has seen a number of recessions in 21 years of owning the maintenance and repair business at the airport and during his time working for the previous owner.

    He said the biggest slump followed the Sept. 11 attacks, which resulted in aviation being grounded nationwide. But this downturn has lasted longer. He said his business is down 30 percent to 35 percent compared with the good times.

    “Generally, it recovers faster,” Braner said. “This one is just a bit slower.”

    An upturn seen

    Sky Trek Aviation, the airport’s fixed-base operator, has not been running as many charter flights for business people, said charter manager John Mizicko. Its charter service also is used by campaigning politicians and some of the stars who perform at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

    Sky Trek, which has fuel sales, maintenance and other services, laid off about 5 percent of its work force in 2009 and 20 percent took a pay cut, Mizicko said. “Our last four or five months have seen an upturn,” he noted.

    Ralph Sauceda, president of Modesto Aviation, said it didn’t help that his flight instructors were grounded during 21 days of fog in January. But he said the flight school, with two trainer airplanes, is holding its own.

    The support businesses were confident of one thing. The company plane is the first thing sold in hard times, but stronger airport activity always follows an economic rebound.

    “American industry can’t survive in the modern economy without aviation,” Mizicko said.

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