Economic activity keeps grant dollars flowing to Hermiston airport
August 31, 2015
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  • The Hermiston Municipal Airport plays a valuable role in economic development.

    The Hermiston Municipal Airport may look unassuming, but there is more economic activity going on there than meets the eye.

    “There is a lot more corporate traffic out there than people would assume,” assistant city manager Mark Morgan said.

    No one keeps track of every single touchdown and takeoff at the airport, but there are an estimated 30,000 “operations” at the airport each year. Summer months are busier than winter months thanks in part to traffic from three agricultural operations that use the airport as a base.

    People tend to think of airports the size of Hermiston’s — with its 4,500 foot runway — as the domain of single-engine hobby planes, but Morgan said a significant amount of the traffic coming in and out of the airport is agricultural or corporate. Crop dusters come and go, and corporate planes deliver executives for companies like RDO Equipment and DuPont Pioneer.

    The airport also hosts a UPS freight plane 10 times a week, handles traffic created by construction projects and sees helicopter traffic for things like firefighting and medical transport.

    Hermiston Aviation, which is contracted to run the airport on behalf of the city, only has three employees, but a 2014 report from the Oregon Department of Aviation stated the airport supported 80 local jobs and 26 elsewhere in the state, combining for a total of $2 million a year in wages. It also stated that aviation-dependent commercial activity in the vicinity of the airport generated $205 million in sales statewide.

    That type of economic impact is why the state and federal governments are willing to continue investing grant money into the airport when there are larger airports with more infrastructure just a brief flight away in Pendleton and the Tri-Cities.

    In September the city plans to begin a $3.3 million project, paid for almost entirely with grant money, to build a new taxiway at the airport.

    The current taxiway is out of compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards, which state that the center of the runway and the center of the parallel taxiway must be at least 240 feet apart.

    The project will also include pavement upgrades, moving the fuel station and installing larger fuel tanks. It will cost the city about $42,000 out of its general fund.

    Morgan said the city usually puts about $40,000 a year toward the airport. The airport also gets revenue from the federal and state government, fuel sales and hangar leases. About 40 airplanes are housed at the airport, all indoors.

    Susie Rawe, manager of the Hermiston Municipal Airport, said aviation has changed quite a bit since Hermiston Aviation took over the airport management 31 years ago. Hermiston has grown much larger, but at the airport some of that growth has been balanced out by other developments. Rising fuel and insurance costs have decreased private plane use and technological advances mean corporate managers don’t have to fly out on location as often to sign documents or examine a piece of property.

    Technology has changed the way pilots do business, too. Gone are the days when pilots used the airport lounge to spread out paper charts and plot their course.

    Navigation information, fuel prices at nearby airports, hotel and restaurant booking, weather conditions and other information is now at pilots’ fingertips. The Hermiston airport even has an Automated Weather Observing System that gives pilots up-to-the-minute information on crucial information like wind speed and direction via phone.

    “Pilots are so much more independent these days,” Rawe said. “Smartphones have changed everything.”

    As for the airport’s future, the taxi realignment project could help pave the way for an expansion sometime in the future. Morgan said there are a number of hurdles, however, to extending the runway to 5,000 feet, starting with the fact that Ott Road would have to be moved to comply with FAA standards.

    “Even if the stars aligned perfectly it would be at least eight years out,” he said.

    One upgrade that has been on the city’s capital improvement list for years that will be started at the airport this year is an Airport Geographic Information System mapping project, which will help pilots land in poor weather conditions. Morgan said the FAA offered the city discretionary grant funds to complete the system two years ahead of schedule, freeing up funds for some other airport upgrade in 2017.