By: Eric Ernst
October 20, 2011
After Hurricane Charley hit Charlotte County, people might have wondered whether the Punta Gorda Airport would ever recover.
The storm in August 2004 destroyed 16 airport buildings and damaged nine others. It knocked out the electricity and running water, and it toasted the runway lights.
“The first five days, everything was just chaos,” says Gary Quill, the airport manager since 2001.
The rebound started quickly, however.
“We didn’t sit around and cry. We gathered the bankers and the engineers and the accountants, and we made a plan,” Kathleen Coppola says. “We scrapped and sold everything we could. We borrowed $11 million. We turned total defeat into what’s glorious today.”
Coppola’s exuberance is understandable. She has served 20 years on the Charlotte County Airport Authority, which oversees the operations of the airport and its industrial and commercial parks.
Charley’s winds blew away a World War II-era facility; FEMA, insurance and careful management ushered in a new, debt-free, self-sufficient airport, which receives nothing from property taxes, and nothing from nonusers.
“To see it now, it’s life’s work done,” Coppola says.
Well, maybe not quite done.
The airport continues to improve. It just erected a 135-foot, $4 million control tower, the tallest structure in Charlotte County. The tower was supposed to be up and running Oct. 26, but congressional delays in setting the Federal Aviation Administration budget have postponed the opening indefinitely. The FAA is responsible for manning the tower.
As Quill puts it, “We have a few glitches.”
That’s general aviation in a nutshell these days. Recreational pilots – many of them trained on the GI Bill from World War II or the Korean War – are getting older, and no one is replacing them.
Punta Gorda used to have a waiting list of 180 for hangar spaces. Now, even with 300 planes based at the airport, it has 50 vacancies.
But that hasn’t stopped the airport from flourishing. Perhaps its biggest success story lies in its ability to attract commercial airlines.
By Christmas, three carriers will be flying out of little old Punta Gorda.
Allegiant Air offers flights to Greensboro, N.C.; Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Lexington, Ky.
Directair flies to Kalamazoo, Mich.; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Worcester, Mass.; Toledo, Ohio; Allentown, Pa.; Springfield, Ill.; and Chicago/Rockford, Ill.
Vision Airlines will soon open flights to Champaign/Urbana, Ill., and Louisville, Ky.
From a consumer perspective, this is a great way to go. Although most flights are only twice weekly, and some may be as expensive as those on larger carriers leaving from larger airports, most are also nonstop. And in Punta Gorda, even long-term parking ($8 a day; $50 a week) is a short walk to the terminal.
Word must be getting around. During the winter season, Quill says, customers are lined up out of the terminal to the curb. He estimates the airport will serve 250,000 passengers next year, which based on this year’s figures, would rank it 204th among the 400 U.S. airports offering commercial flights.
Punta Gorda does not charge airlines a landing fee as many airports do. It makes its money from car rentals ($720,559 this year) parking ($281,287), and aviation fuel sales ($633,000 in profit).
It also brings in nearly $1.6 million in rents, ranging from $55 a month for aircraft tie-downs to $12,000 monthly for Arcadia Aerospace.
The latter example may be a bit misleading. Arcadia Aerospace, which does high-tech testing for companies such as Honda and Boeing, owes the airport $400,000 in back rent.
As Quill would say, that’s another glitch.
But the authority board members, some of whom have owned small businesses, sympathize with the problems that beset businesses in a down economy. They’ve waited patiently while the company lines up investors.
It’s hard to second-guess that business decision in light of how the airport has succeeded elsewhere, and given the frugal nature of its spending policies.
“We’re not people who spend it to spend it. If we have to borrow money, we plan to repay it before we borrow more,” Coppola says. “We have a good credit rating, We’re always able to pay the bills. We have no debts.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
“One commissioner described our terminal as a Wal-Mart building. We loved that,” Quill says. “We’ll always be a fraction of our neighbors, and that’s fine.”
Eric Ernst’s column runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com or (941) 486-3073.