February 7, 2012 By:Laura Ruane
General aviation is big business at Naples Municipal Airport, which still hopes for airline service.
Naples Municipal Airport is throttling up its role as economic engine as Southwest Florida enters its high season for vacation- and business-based travelers.
And that’s without any scheduled airline service of any size on the horizon.
The airport is flush with charter service, and is a magnet for corporate jets and general aviation aircraft.
Airline service there, however, has been sporadic in recent years, with the last major airline ending limited service in 2007, despite community support.
The recession-wracked airline industry has changed significantly, leaving opinion mixed on whether small airports such as Naples’ will ever again win service from an airline of national stature.
Still, Naples Municipal’s economic influence in the region is significant.
“It’s very important to the economy. The convenience of being able to fly into a Page Field (Fort Myers’ general aviation airport) or a Naples Municipal is very helpful to the business community,” said Gary Jackson, economist and director of the Regional Economic Institute at FGCU.
A state transportation department analysis for 2010 shows Naples Municipal pumps almost $121 million into the local economy yearly, and generates 500 jobs directly, and more than 2,300 jobs directly and indirectly.
By comparison, Page Field airport contributed $94.5 million, and was credited with 987 jobs.
Naples Airport Authority estimates about 75 percent of aviation traffic at the airport is business-related, including small-business owners who fly themselves to meetings elsewhere in Florida and the Southeast, and Fortune 500 firms who bring in key employees for meetings closer to the the corporate executives’ winter digs.
More than 50 businesses are based at the airport, including aircraft maintenance, repair and detailing services, flight schools, car rental agencies, a pilots’ shop and a physician who performs Federal Aviation Administration-required pilot physical exams.
“I took a step of faith, and bought a fairly large hangar here in 2007. I’m not disappointed I did,” said Rex Gasteiger, owner of RexAir Flight & Maintenance Center. His business employs 10 full- and part-time workers, teaching people to fly, renting airplanes to them, and doing aircraft maintenance.
Many of of his student-pilots are local professionals and business people. The typical progression is, “they get their private pilot’s license, then their instrument ticket, buy an airplane, and then use it for business and pleasure.” Gasteiger said. He sells aircraft for local clients. “It’s a buyers’ market right now. Money is tight.”
This year “is looking better than last year,” Gasteiger said. “We’re starting to see some improvement.”
David Rochin, owner of the Airport Pilot Shop calls the Naples market “very unique. It has a very diverse population of pilots.” He sells both online and at Naples Municipal. Staples include aviation books and charts, portable GPS devices for airplane use, accessories that make it more convenient to use an iPad in a cockpit, headsets and “toys for general aviation enthusiasts,” including die-cast airplane models and Barbie dolls as flight attendants.
Rochin is a licensed private pilot and a former airline pilot. “When you buy from me, you get my knowledge as well as the product.” With headsets costing up to $1,000, it helps to have a seller with first-hand knowledge about their differences. Further, “I will let you take a headset out for a test flight, and you can see whether you like it,” Rochin said.
Off-airport, Naples Municipal is a major player in Collier County’s lifeblood tourism and hospitality industry, which bought more than $865 million in visitor expenditures last year, and directly supported an estimated 23,000 jobs.
“Every single day we are welcoming guests from the airport. … I frequent the facility on aweekly basis, picking up our VIP guests,” said Ed Staros, vice president and managing director for The Ritz-Carlton Resort of Naples.
“You should have seen the corporate jets lined up last weekend, jets from all over the world, here for the Naples Winter Wine Festival,” said Scott Cameron, Naples-based commercial real estate broker, pilot and the founder of Friends of Naples
Municipal Airport. The event raised more than $12 million, all of it going to local children’s charities, Cameron noted.
Cameron flies his Piper Seneca six-passenger, twin-engine aircraft, primarily for business. “I can leave at 10:30 for a lunch meeting in Orlando, and be back in the office, working on projects by mid-afternoon,” Cameron said.
To be sure, economic downturns locally and beyond have hurt airport business. Fewer takeoffs and landings have cut into fuel sales and other aircraft-related services.
For example, jet fuel sales are expected to increase by 5 percent to 4.7 million gallons in fiscal year 2012. However, in the peak year for fuel sales – fiscal 2007 – 6.5 million gallons were sold.
The airport, however, continues to invest heavily in the airport’s future. It built a U.S. Customs facility at the airport that opened Dec. 30, 2010. Through Jan. 31 of this year, Customs clearings totaled 483, with 98 percent attributed to aircraft with Naples as their final destination. Fifty-seven percent of the aircraft clearing Customs arrived from the Caribbean, 34 percent from Canada and 9 percent from other areas outside the United States, according to the airport authority.
Pilots pay for the service; fees range from $50 to $400, based on the size of the aircraft.
More recently, the authority paved safety zones on one of its two intersecting paved runways, adding about 800 feet for takeoff. Authority Executive Director Ted Soliday said the extra runway length not only enhances safety by providing more room for aborted takeoffs and other emergencies: It also improves the airport’s chances of resuming commercial air service with regional jets, which can require more runway length to take off when fully loaded with passengers.
This regional service wouldn’t likely come through so-called legacy airlines that focus on flights of more than 500 miles, but “on smaller operations who can operate small aircraft efficiently, connecting airports like Naples to hubs,” Cameron said.
Michael Boyd, a nationally known aviation industry consultant who’s based in Colorado, said short-haul, scheduled flights of 500 miles or less no longer make financial sense for airlines, no matter how small and efficient they are.
“Naples will not have airline service again. It’s over; it’s done,” Boyd said.
Asked to respond, Soliday said he agrees it’s a big financial risk for airlines to launch service. “But we can buy it,” Soliday said, “Naples can buy a lot.”