Local airport a draw for business and pilots
August 8, 2015
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  • HICKORY – If you moved to Hickory after 2005, chances are you’ve never flown into or out of the Hickory Regional Airport. That’s the year that Hickory’s last commercial airline, Delta, pulled up stakes and moved out.

    Those with deep pockets can afford to charter a plane. Round trip rates from Hickory to Dallas will run you anywhere from $17,000 to $21,000 depending on the kind of plane you choose, according to a price quote from Skyjet. Expedia can get you there and back on Delta for $369 from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Add a round trip to the Charlotte airport for $70 on the Hickory Hop shuttle and you’ll get to Dallas and back for $439.

    Hickory’s airport still holds a certificate for commercial air services, but the city’s proximity to Charlotte Douglas, just under an hour away, will likely render its return infeasible.

    “Commercial air services as we typically think of it will likely not return to Hickory,” according to an email from Hickory’s Communication Specialist Dana Kaminski.

    The City of Hickory owns and operates the Hickory Regional Airport, which occupies land in Catawba and Burke counties. City officials say the airport is self sustaining with money flowing in from three main sources: fuel sales, aircraft tie down rentals and hangar rentals. Additional income flows in from office and restaurant rentals and the three car rental agencies headquartered in the terminal.

    Hickory’s “Fuel Farm” was added in 2013 to enhance the airport’s ability to generate money and to remain viable as a self-sustaining entity. Fuel is available 24 hours a day.

    Private pilot and attorney Jack White, of Nashua, N.H., owns a vacation home on Lake Rhodhiss and flies into Hickory’s airport half a dozen times per year, and even when he’s flying in for fuel en route to his next stop, he’ll choose Hickory before Statesville, Asheville or any one of its regional competitors.

    “The fuel prices are fabulous – Hickory has some of the best fuel prices in the country,” White said. “This is one of the nicest FBOs (fixed base operations) in the country. The people who work here are very friendly and responsive.”

    White’s plane, along with more than 90 others, is housed at the Hickory Airport. Some are tethered to the tarmac; some are kept in hangars.

    In 2014, approximately 25,700 aircraft took off and landed at the Hickory airport – a monthly average of 2,139. It’s projected that Hickory will host 30,000 takeoffs and landings this year.

    While Hickory’s aircraft control tower doesn’t track the aircrafts’ origin or destination, airport officials say that the bulk of Hickory’s air traffic is a mixture of business, tourism and student pilot training. And a lot of the planes landing in Hickory are here to refuel. Hickory’s convenient for flights leaving from and arriving in Florida, Washington D.C. and New York. It’s also an alternative Marine One airport, which means that the president’s helicopters have been known to make regular fuel stops in Hickory during training flights.

    As for the benefits for Hickory residents who can no longer afford to fly out of their hometown airport, or who prefer the discount prices available in Charlotte, Hickory spokespeople say the airport’s still a boon because it’s a big draw when recruiting businesses to our area and retaining existing businesses.

    “Approximately two to five opportunities arise every year that have some linkage to the airport,” said the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation’s President Scott Millar. “Without an airport we’d be out of the running for two to five airplane suppliers per year.”

    White agrees.

    “Small businesses use general aviation to conduct business – especially when they need to go 300-400 miles away, which is very difficult to do commercially,” he said. “Owning an airplane is an expensive proposition, but businesses can choose to buy or rent a small airplane or purchase a fractional share of one.”

    Charlotte and Monroe have airports, but pilots have to schedule their takeoffs and landings around the commercial airlines’ schedule. As for airports with capacities similar to what you’ll find at Hickory there aren’t too many in the state. Hickory’s main competition when wooing perspective businesses to relocate here are Statesville and Union County’s airports.

    It’s also about perception. When Millar pitches a business on the benefits of coming to Hickory, he’s selling them on the total package. Hickory’s assets include its schools, its infrastructure, its museums, its airport and once you lose enough of those features we’re no longer considered a major market.

    “You don’t have a market of substance without a viable airport,” Millar said. “Having a school like St. Stephens here is important to me even though I don’t have any children. Just because I don’t take advantage of an asset doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

    The CEO of Hickory’s Convention Center & Visitor’s Center Bebe Leitch has seen the airport play a direct role in bolstering Hickory’s economy.

    “There are people who fly into hickory to shop for furniture,” she said. “They’ll come here, shop for furniture and spend $500,000, have it shipped to their home then go to Blowing Rock for a few days before flying back home. I think the airport is great for our economy.”

    The airport is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The FAA-certified control tower is operational from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

    But there’s more to the airport than air travel. The Hickory Aviation Museum is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. The Young Eagles, a program that introduces young aviation enthusiasts to flight, meets at the Hickory airport on the second Saturday of each month at 8:30 p.m. There is also a fire department at the airport.