By Dianne Straley
Last year, Hickory lost $167,000 running its airport; this year, the city is selling more fuel, parking more planes and renting more hangars.
The ledger is in better shape, too, with the city breaking even on airport operations.
For the first time in at least 20 years, Hickory taxpayers have not had to subsidize airport operations, said Warren Wood, an assistant city manager.
The turnaround started last December, when a bankruptcy court in Charlotte allowed the city to begin day-to-day operation of the regional airport after its previous operator filed for bankruptcy protection.
Hickory is a longtime owner of the airport but contracted with private firms to handle the day-to-day operations, such as renting space, fueling and moving planes in and out of the hangars. After the last fixed-base operator left, Hickory took over operational duties Dec. 9, 2011.
Since then, the city has put in fuel tanks, including a self-service station where pilots can use a credit card to buy fuel 24 hours a day. It cut fuel prices and brought in an airplane maintenance and repair firm to serve pilots.
In the last year, Hickory Regional Airport has seen:
• Fuel revenue climb 36 percent;
• Rental income from hangars up 36 percent;
• Tenant revenues up 28 percent.
“We’re right where we thought we would be,” Wood told City Council members in a recent year-end review of airport operations.
“We are rebuilding the reputation of the airport,” Wood said in an interview. Under the last FBO, several pilots shifted to hangars at other airports because of service problems, council members have said.
The airport, with two runways and a control tower, is south of U.S. 321 near the Crawdads baseball stadium. The city sees it as an important economic development tool that serves existing corporations and may attract new ones.
Since passenger service ended in 2006, Hickory now serves only general aviation aircraft. It is used by planes owned by individuals as well as small jets and larger propeller-driven planes operated by corporations including Corning, Commscope, Apple and Hickory Springs.
Over the years, Hickory passengers flew Piedmont and US Airways, with the last passenger service ending in 2006, when Delta stopped flights to Atlanta.
But the airport, built by the federal government to train World War II pilots, is still busy with general aviation, rental-car companies and a café. Its main parking lot usually is full of cars left by passengers who catch the Hickory Hop shuttle van, which makes a dozen round trips daily to Charlotte Douglas International, from 4 a.m. to midnight.
The airport had 40,500 flights in the 12-month period ending in July.
Currently, 78 aircraft are based at Hickory Regional, a 10 percent increase in the last year. The planes have a tax value of $27.5 million, which generates $137,000 in annual taxes, Wood said.
Airport manager Terry Clark said the city has set new rental rates for hangar space, increasing some prices and lowering others so owners are paying the same price for planes of similar size. “Before, the rates were all over the place, even in the same hangar,” Clark said.
A firm, Plane Fix, was signed in the summer to maintain and repair aircraft.
The city installed an $800,000 fuel farm last year near the airport fire station, with the Federal Aviation Administration paying 90 percent of the cost.
Fuel prices now are competitive with other municipal airports in Western North Carolina, Clark said.
Hickory wants to close its secondary runway eventually and build hangars on that space. But the airport currently has a 25 percent vacancy rate, so new hangars are years away, Clark said.