By Beth Perdue
Sequester cuts including the expected closure of more than 100 FAA airport control towers across the country may throw a significant wrench into airport plans.
Cuts went into effect on Friday but their full impact isn’t yet known, according to both the FAA and airport. New Bedford’s control tower, run as a contract FAA operation, is expected to close as of April 1, according to airport manager Tom Vick, who said the FAA is expected to send notice of closings on March 4. Airport officials, he said, have been reaching out to local legislators to advocate for the tower’s continued operation.
Vick struggled to stay positive about the potential loss.
“The tower is an integral part of safety and economic development plans,” said Vick. “If the airport absolutely has to, we can operate without it.”
An operational safety plan is being developed to continue functioning safely, according to Vick. Without an FAA tower, the airport can’t clear planes for take-off or landing, but it can give traffic pattern information such as another plane is landing on a specific runway, he said.
“It’s a challenging time,” he said. “We’re going to do the best we can.”
The manager of the New Bedford Regional Airport believes a small operation, run sustainably and innovatively, can be a smart way to build a successful business.
It’s a belief he’d like to see proven at the city’s commercial airport.
Vick and other airport officials have drafted a 20-year master plan update with consultants that addresses crucial infrastructure needs, supports the freeing up of land for new hangars and a new research facility, and looks to boost passenger numbers and plane usage. When finalized, the master plan requires approval from the Airport Commission, which is expected to come in late spring.
But, unlike past plans, it doesn’t push for runway expansion.
That’s a shift in thinking for airport leaders away from late-1990s ideas that relied on expanding runway lengths as the best way to get airport business off the ground. That proposal would have allowed larger aircraft to land in the city and created opportunities for building cargo traffic, but was abandoned in 2005, based on opposition to wetlands disruption and increased intrusion into local neighborhoods.
That plan is off the table, agreed Vick, and that’s just fine with him.
“There are things that just aren’t realistic and you have to say that has to be dropped,” he said. “Big doesn’t necessarily mean better. The key is building off what we’ve got existing here.”
The smallest of the state’s nine commercial airports, in terms of payroll and economic impact, the New Bedford Regional Airport is home to Cape Air, its sole commercial airline, plus three fixed-based operators who provide maintenance and fueling services, a university-run aviation program, and about 120 aircraft. Owned by the city, it is run by a nine-member airport commission who oversee Vick, a full-time manager. The entire operation includes Vick, four additional full-time employees, and a few part-time ones.
Each existing business component provides activity that can be built on to boost the operation, airport leaders believe, particularly Bridgewater State University’s four-year aviation program, which, they say, can help create a thriving aviation research environment in the city.
“I really believe that is our niche for this airport,” said Vick about the research component. “One of the things I said during my interview (for this job) is that I want to make this a learning, research airport. We need to redirect and go in a different direction for success.”
“We plan to take a new direction,” agreed Paul Barton, airport commission chairman. “We’re trying to stimulate economic development up there “» We want to reach our maximum potential and growth there.”
BSU is in the Cockpit
Much of the research and learning initiative the airport is proposing hinges on BSU investing in an expansion of its current New Bedford program. It’s something the university hasn’t committed to, according to David Price, associate dean of the aviation program.
“We’re very interested in it,” said Price. “We know within our program, with the way it has been growing, that we’ll eventually be bursting at the seams.”
The university has had an aviation program for about 30 years, but in 2005 kicked it up a notch when it invested $1 million to purchase its own fleet of planes. The school currently owns 11 planes, has about 120 aviation students, and has produced graduates who work for every major airline and in every branch of the military, Price said.
Several factors make the program’s future growth promising. There are few four-year collegiate aviation programs available to students and applicants frequently travel long distances to find one, Price said. BSU is the only one in New England and one of the least expensive aviation programs available, he said.
The industry is also grappling with a shortage of pilots. More than half of all U.S. airline pilots are over age 50, according to a November Wall Street Journal report, and retirees are leaving the industry in significant numbers. As they retire, the concern is that there are not enough pilots in the pipeline to replace them.
“Pilots are retiring at a huge rate and the problem is that students are not going into STEM fields like aviation. No one is drawing the next generation of pilots to fill all those empty slots,” said Price.
Once they graduate, pilots are hired quickly, generally starting careers at smaller airlines such as Cape Air, before moving on to the major airlines within a few years.
“As soon as they are ready to move on, it’s like a vacuum, they are all being pulled upward,” said Price.
The BSU program is at capacity and could use more space to grow.
“If I looked at the flight schedule, every flight block of the day has a student name in it,” said Price. “Things on our wish list are more classroom space and a hangar for airplanes. Down the road, I think we’ll get those things.”
New Bedford’s proposed master plan update identifies about 18 acres that will be reclaimed, once a secondary runway is narrowed, to build a new aviation research facility on the airport’s east side. The additional space would allow the university to build both expanded facilities and a hangar to store its aircraft, which are currently tied up outdoors.
The space would also allow the university to develop a new aviation program for aircraft mechanics. Mechanics, like pilots, are currently in short supply within the industry, Price said.
While an industry need exists, Price said BSU hasn’t made any decisions yet. The university is discussing costs and benefits including whether the training program, typically offered by trade schools, is a good fit for a four-year university. There are also some substantial start-up costs involved, he said, including the need to purchase jet engines.
Despite the uncertainty of expansion, Price was enthusiastic about New Bedford’s proposed shift toward research.
“It’s a really smart idea,” he said. “We’d hope to be part of the plan.”
The university also has a nice connection with Vick, who is a 1984 graduate of its aviation program. Vick came to New Bedford two years ago from a position as director of aeronautics and business at Averett University in Virginia. Also a lawyer, the airport manager has a natural inclination toward research, and has already supported local programs, including one involving a team of undergraduates at Roger Williams University who were trying to develop equipment that melts snow and ice faster.
That’s a pretty useful idea when it comes to clearing 5,000-foot runways, Vick said.
“It was a great idea and I provided staff to help guide them,” he said. “It didn’t work. But the thing is that was a successful failure, because that opens eyes that there are other things out there and we might be able to use that concept, reconfigure it or something, and come up with something that will work.”
The airport has also begun using a type of grass seed that doesn’t require regular mowing and collaborated with UMass Dartmouth on the research of new types of pavement.
“The idea here is that we’re going to try things that haven’t been done at other airports,” said Vick.
Vick also has his eyes on alternative energy supplies and would eventually like to see both wind and solar sources at the airport. Possibly geothermal too, he said.
The airport has also been approached by a group of federal and state agencies, including the FAA, to apply for a program to create a carbon neutral airport operation (excluding plane emissions). It is one of only five airports statewide that were asked. If accepted, it would gain both by improving airport sustainability and potentially securing support for additional infrastructure needs, Vick said.
The Horizon is Bright “¦ and Far Off
New Bedford may be planning intelligently for its future, but it won’t get off the ground without first addressing a long list of infrastructure needs, most of which line up, one behind the other, for annual doses of Federal Aviation Administration funding.
Aging, leaking buildings, and runways, ramps and taxiways in disrepair all need what amounts to some expensive attention. The fact that the airport’s primary function, its runways, have not been reconstructed in 35 years is a good indication of where things stand, according to Vick, who said Band-Aids are no longer working.
“For a number of years, people have put Band-Aids on problems and what I’m doing is pulling them off as they break and then we’re going in to try to do it right,” he said.
But right is going to take time, well over a decade if projects get tackled one by one.
Improvements have begun, including the creation of safety buffer zones on either end of runway 523, the airport’s primary runway, as well as ongoing wetlands mitigation work. Runway 523 is also slated for reconstruction this summer. The approximately $13 million project will go out to bid in April and FAA and state funding applications will be submitted by May 1, according to airport consultant Robert J. Mallard, president of Woburn-based Airport Solutions Group.
Funding percentages fluctuate, but current standards call for the FAA to contribute 90 percent of project funding, with 7.5 percent coming from the state, and the final 2.5 percent provided by the city.
The recent threat of budget cuts from a sequester may ground the project, but, after speaking to the FAA recently, Mallard is “cautiously optimistic.” Runway projects are the FAA’s highest priority, he said, which will help keep New Bedford in the pipeline, even while other projects may get bumped.
Next up for the airport, assuming funding opportunities continue, is phase one of apron reconstruction work, a project that environmental regulators raised as important during prior project reviews. The goal there is to upgrade older drainage systems that were not designed to today’s standards, Mallard said.
“Aprons are where the fueling (of planes) takes place so if there was a fuel spill, they want to be sure contaminants don’t make their way into surface water,” he said.
These projects, plus additional apron repair, will account for at least the next five years of work. A more specific implementation plan with anticipated project dates and expenses is being developed and should be completed in April, Mallard said, once all public input is obtained.
But the reality is there’s a lengthy catch-up period required before the airport can look to grow. And likely a similar time period before BSU is ready to grow.
The list of improvements and repairs means a project to cut the width of a secondary airport runway in half, from 150 feet to 75 feet, won’t happen for about a decade, Mallard said. And it’s that project that creates space to build new hangars and the proposed Bridgewater State University research facility.
Some projects could jump the FAA funding queue and theoretically happen faster, Mallard said, pointing to proposed reconstruction of the airport’s aging, 1950s control tower and terminal building.
The control tower, while eiligible to get FAA funding, falls outside the administration’s regular improvement fund being tapped for other infrastructure projects, he said.
Terminal construction would be eligible for state funding. Most terminal projects are funded by the state’s Department of Transportation, Mallard said, adding that New Bedford is more than due for its share.
“If you look at other existing commercial service airports, every single one of them (in Massachusetts) has a new terminal except New Bedford,” he said. “New Bedford is clearly the oldest. Everyone else is either 1999 or newer.”
The BSU facility would also need to be financed by sources secured by the university.
Small Operation, Big Economic Impact
Despite its small staff, the airport generates significant economic development dollars, according to a 2011 state transportation report on Massachusetts airports. The New Bedford operation has a $26 million regional economic impact and supports a direct and indirect payroll of $8.3 million representing 234 jobs, the report stated.
It’s that foundation officials want to build on.
The airport, Barton said, “is an under-developed economic engine and it’s our goal to inform the public and get as much information out as possible so it can be used to its utmost.”
A marketing research study conducted a few years ago found most people, more than 50 percent, didn’t know the airport existed, Barton said, much less that it played a major economic development role for the city.
In an effort to raise its visibility, the airport has been reaching out to the community through events, improved amenities and a series of public information meetings on the proposed master plan.
It held an airport appreciation day last year giving out hats, bumper stickers and other airport-branded goodies and is supporting an aviation group project to build an aviation-themed playground at the airfield.
The airport has also recently added passenger amenities including new televisions and furniture and expects to have wireless service and device charging capabilities available soon. There is also a popular bistro-style restaurant that operates in the terminal building.
Financially, the airport is self-sustaining, according to Vick, who said it operates using revenues from tenants and landing fees. City documents show a fiscal 2013 budget of about $676,000, about $14,000 lower than fiscal 2012. Budgets from three to five years earlier were in the $750,000 range.
In addition to economics, the airport also functions as a face of the city to tourists who travel to the islands on Cape Air and for business executives heading to companies and destinations within the region and beyond its borders.
In 2012, Cape Air saw its passenger numbers rise by almost 10 percent, hitting 12,172, a positive sign after years of declines. Passenger numbers had been higher, at 19,686 in 2004, but dropped steadily until hitting 11,680 in 2009. The operation saw a slight rise in 2010 but fell again in 2011 to 11,152.
Significantly, numbers stayed above a 10,000 passenger requirement to keep New Bedford eligible for annual FAA entitlement funding of $1 million.
All other flight activity, including corporate aircraft, pleasure craft, and student use, falls under the heading of general aviation, which is not counted the way commercial numbers are, according to Vick. Within that category, the biggest use is corporate, Mallard said.
While Cape Air has the passenger market handled, the airport also delivers on services for pilots. The presence of an FAA tower and a precision instrument landing system increase the attractiveness to pilots, particularly in bad weather. Three different fuel and maintenance providers also make it easy for aircraft to get service.
The three fixed base operators, Colonial Air, Sandpiper Air, and NorEast Aviation Services, “serve the corporate users, the corporate jets or turboprops and that’s very important, because you’ve got people like NetJets who come in here, said Vick, referring to a group that offers fractional ownership in an aircraft similar to the way condo time-shares work.
“You see a lot of planes coming here using the system because we’ve got a tower and we’ve got different types of approaches, more than a lot of other airports have. I expect that to be a strong selling point,” he added.
After the failure of the last airport plan to gain community support, airport commissioners are sensitive to the need to include all stakeholders in future plans. The list is long, according to Vick, who cited internal constituents such as tenants, passengers, airlines, students, staff and the general public and external ones including city officials, nearby residents, and community organizations.
“The big thing is making sure everyone sees the vision for this airport,” said Vick. “I just want to make sure that there’s a shared vision.”