A hot summer wind blows south across neatly blacktopped Taxiway Delta at the Coeur d’Alene Airport, a superfluous airbrush for the already picture-perfect Citation 10 that’s been anchored to the same spot for several days.
Greg Delavan, the airport’s manager for almost 20 years, admires the craft in part because of its stunning paint job. He does nothing to quench a visitor’s thirst for dirt: What famous person owns that winged masterpiece, and why is he or she here?
“It’s a secret,” says Delavan, bright blue eyes glistening with what could be mischief.
Off the record, Greg. Whose is it?
“No, I mean it’s a secret,” he said. “I don’t know whose it is.”
What Delavan does know is that jet-setters — whoever they are — suit him and many others surrounding Pappy Boyington Field just fine.
In talking to NIBJ about the economic impact of the airport, Delavan can unleash some heavy numbers — try $150 million to $170 million annually to the local economy — but it’s the stories behind those numbers that make him smile.
One of the stories is how much traffic little Coeur d’Alene Airport is enjoying these days, with the subplot of trying to guess who’s in those multi-million dollar jets.
For instance, on the morning of his interview with NIBJ, Delavan marveled at a sparkling new Bombardier Global 6000 whose crew were making last-minute preparations for the return of a family that had been vacationing in North Idaho and was headed next to Montana. Being airport manager has its perks; the pilot gave Delavan and a reporter a tour of the craft’s luxurious, spacious interior.
While the family’s visit no doubt left a nice little economic impression on North Idaho — “When these people come to town they don’t come in on a Greyhound bus, they don’t stay at a Motel 6 and they don’t care what they spend on dinner,” Delavan says — a bigger game was afoot. The Bombardier was actually being shown off to potential buyers, and the pilot, who’s based on the East Coast but hails originally from Calgary, B.C., was so dazzled by his first trip to Coeur d’Alene that he’s eager to promote the region.
“Who knows?” he says to Delavan. “Maybe I’ll move here. My wife would love me for that.”
A decade ago, Delavan says, Coeur d’Alene Airport was home to a good handful of corporate or individually owned jets. While that’s still the case, Delavan says interval ownership has become increasingly popular — and economically feasible — over the past few years.
“It’s like a condo,” he says. “They buy a piece of the airplane; they buy weeks of that airplane.”
Delavan explains that when the economy goes south, corporate shareholders often demand executives travel commercially.
“I’ve seen how flying executives on corporate jets has saved companies money, but that’s not necessarily the image shareholders have,” he says.
These days, then, Coeur d’Alene Airport is benefitting from big-spending visitors here on business or for pleasure, and that’s not anecdotal evidence.
Fred Miller, who’s owned Resort Aviation at the airport for more than three decades, wouldn’t give a specific number — “I’ve got competition out here, you know” — but the Fixed Base Operator acknowledged that the summer’s been good to him.
“We just ended July with an all-time record,” Miller says.
Resort Aviation depends heavily on fuel sales, which Miller says make up 99 percent of the operation’s revenue. On the day NIBJ visited, Miller’s crew didn’t have time for a lunch break, they were so busy refueling jets.
According to Miller, a gallon of fuel retails for $5.59 — “But we give ‘em a special price,” he says of the big filler-uppers. “Just today, one took 2,800 gallons. Another took 2,000.”
The average order is about 1,000 gallons, Miller estimates. But even then, paying retail would cost the 1,000-gallon customer $5,590. That 2,800-gallon guy? His credit card slip would show $15,652 for one tank of gas.
“They never blink an eye,” Miller says.
If it costs that much just to make a $50 million gadget go, imagine what some of these folks are spending on second and third homes throughout North Idaho; on furnishings for their getaways; on necessities and luxuries alike. Delavan doesn’t just imagine it; he welcomes it and works hard to bring in more of it.
Last autumn, for instance, Coeur d’Alene Airport hosted a Cessna fly-in.
“People from around the world came here in their own planes, their own jets,” Delavan says, adding that a family might spend $25,000 just getting to and from North Idaho.
“That fly-in had a strong economic impact for the whole area,” Delavan says. “It exposed our community to a lot of people who can someday come back with small businesses.”
Or large. As enthralled as Delavan is with that Bombardier’s 100-foot wingspan and the couple who climb out of their small
plane with the family pooch, he readily acknowledges that the really big bucks reside on the industrial and manufacturing development side of the airport equation. Yes, even at a transient place like a county-operated airport, it’s really all about jobs.
Anchor airport tenant Empire Airlines nearly bolted for Spokane a couple of years ago, but a massive keep ‘em home retention effort that stretched from Delavan’s office to the governor’s succeeded.
“Empire’s a real shining star for us,” Delavan says.
That’s “shining” as in “gold.”
Tim Komberec, president and CEO of Empire Airlines and Empire Aeronautics, describes Empire’s employment footprint in Kootenai County this way:
• People in corporate office: 70
• People in Empire’s repair station: 90
• Contract mechanics: range 20-30
• Total estimated 2013 payroll for Kootenai County-based employees: $7.6 million
Unitech is another of the airport’s star tenants — one of more than 100, according to Delavan — and it, too, is in expansion mode. When you fit all the pieces of the airport economic puzzle together, a model that Delavan says works so well because it incorporates a public-private enterprise structure that allows the airport to be the landlord and numerous businesses the tenants, the economic impact is increasingly impressive.
A year after Delavan took the airport controls in 1994, a University of Idaho study estimated the facility’s economic benefit to the region at $30 million.
“We didn’t think anybody would believe that,” Delavan admits.
But in 1998, a study by the state backed up the earlier projections.
“It not only verified the earlier numbers,” Delavan says, “but it was much more.”
Then in 2009, the largest study yet was conducted. The Idaho Transportation Department Division of Aeronautics analysis showed the airport’s economic impact as $129,778,500 — far more than any of the state’s 15 other regional business airports, with Nampa coming in a distant second at $43 million and Sandpoint third at $33 million.
Regional business airports, the study says, “support regional economic activities, connecting to state and national economies, and serve all types of general aviation aircraft. They also accommodate local business activities and various types of general aviation users.”
Accommodating local business activities has pushed Coeur d’Alene Airport’s economic impact even higher, Delavan says, since the 2009 study was completed.
“My numbers say, using the same bases for analysis, it’s now somewhere between $150 million and $170 million,” he says. “The key is we rival Boise and dwarf all the other airports in the state for general aviation — everything other than commercial (‘buy a ticket and take a seat’) and military.”