If raw numbers are a clear indicator of decline or growth, the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport’s operational statistics in the last half-decade would seem uninspiring.
The airport at Janesville’s southern edge has seen a 41 percent drop-off in overall air traffic between 2012 and 2015. And since 2009, after the General Motors plant shuttered, the airport’s annual haul in air freight—once its largest commercial operation—has been stagnant.
Yet those stats don’t reflect the millions of dollars the county-run airport and private developers have spent in the last few years to upgrade and modernize the facility and boost its use.
And they don’t reflect what airport officials and one private business say has been a boom in business for one key operation at the airport: chartered business flights.
SC Aviation is set in September to open the doors on a new, 36,700-square-foot hangar and aircraft maintenance facility—a $37 million investment by the company. It adds to the 12,000 square feet of space the company already occupies at the airport.
The company operates out of multiple small and medium-sized airports in Wisconsin and Illinois, but it chose Janesville as the site for an expansion because of a jump in demand, mainly by local corporations.
A BIG BIRD BOOST
SC Aviation is riding a 30 percent climb in business, most of it linked to chartered business flights, and that’s what drove the company’s expansion, said Dan Morrison, SC Aviation’s sales and marketing director.
“It’s been a busy market for us the last few years. We’ve never been tied to air freight handling, which declined a lot in Rock County. It’s always been the chartered (business) flights. From that standpoint, we’ve seen business climb between 25 and 30 percent. It’s a big thing,” Morrison said.
“You’ll see a business maybe have a 30 percent increase in one year, a one-time increase. Yet we’ve been able to continue to accumulate that kind of an increase every year over the last four. That shows a lot, and the increased capacity and capability through the new hangar in Janesville is designed to help continue that growth,” Morrison said.
SC Aviation’s expansion includes the construction of a new hangar and service center and the addition of two eight- to 10-seater charter airplanes. The Monroe-based company plans to use the extra planes to bolster a growing number of flights it runs out of the airport.
The company has hired more than a dozen new employees and more are on the way—as many as 31 eventually—ranging from pilots to mechanics and maintenance staff.
Some of the new jobs pay $31 an hour or more, the company has said.
SC Aviation’s expansion is a sign of where growth is occurring, and it’s not in freight moving.
Air freight totals fell from 1.5 million pounds in 2004 to as little as 17,000 pounds in 2015, mostly because GM’s closure killed a huge demand for so-called “just in time” parts and equipment deliveries by air. The air freight that comes through the airport has averaged just 37,000 pounds a year since 2012.
Air traffic in and out of the airport—particularly across the major designations of itinerant and local general aviation—has dropped from about 55,000 flights in 2012 to 32,000 in 2015, according to airport records. This year’s numbers for air traffic and freight aren’t available.
The dip in flights came in part because of a slow economic recovery and also because major upgrades at the airport in 2013 and 2014 interrupted regular operations, said airport Director Ron Burdick.
The $3.2 million in upgrades, most of which were completed by 2015, modernized the look and operation of the terminal. The terminal opened in 1959 and for decades had seen minimal improvements.
Between construction and a dour economy that put a dent in recreational flying, the terminal for the last few years has not had a restaurant. The county renovated a 3,700-square-foot space for a restaurant, but it has gone unfilled despite attempts to market it.
“You had the impact of the big (terminal) construction in the past few years, and the general aviation, small privately-owned aircraft that would fly in and use the restaurant. We know that, in the past, that created a lot of activity at the airport. Not having that here has meant some loss of activity,” Burdick said.
“The other side of the coin, GM moving out and the air cargo market going away, there’s been nothing in the local economy that has brought it back to anywhere near the volume we saw earlier,” he said.
Lower air traffic numbers, regardless of their reason, might make potential restaurateurs wary. The airport’s location on Highway 51 on the south end of Janesville—a spot that’s removed from major areas of commerce—also doesn’t help to make the site favorable for a restaurant.
“It’s outside of the main flow,” Burdick said. “We’ve said a restaurant at the airport would really have to fill a unique niche. It’s not to say it’s an impossible situation. A restaurant worked great 15 or 20 years ago when there was a big volume of traffic and operations. It’s a challenge.”
Despite those headwinds, Burdick sees a bright side in chartered flights and service to new companies.
“Long term, that’s the biggest area of growth we’re expecting, the chartered (business) flights. There has been the biggest upswing in those flights for overall operations in the last three years, and it’s the other side of the loss of smaller aircraft use. The chartered and corporate flights are bigger aircraft. They use more fuel. That’s been an improvement, and we think it’s going to continue,” Burdick said.
Meanwhile, upgrades at the terminal and SC Aviation’s nearly completed hangar expansion have dovetailed with a general uptick in the economy and major development prospects unfolding on the city’s south end.
Airport officials and economic development experts hope that large industrial projects on the south side—including Dollar General’s 1-million-square-foot distribution warehouse and SHINE Medical Technologies’ planned medical radioisotope production facility—will provide a boost for the airport.
Dollar General’s warehouse will open in 2017, and its operations, which include a semitrailer truck fleet maintenance facility, could fuel some “just in time” air freight demand.
SHINE has said it intends to make regular use of the airport to transport containers of the Molybdenum 99 it will produce in Janesville. The material, which is used in medical testing, breaks down quickly, so some of it—particularly shipments destined for international markets—will need to be flown out.
Burdick said he believes SHINE’s operations, which go fully online in 2019, will bring new activity to the airport.
James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development director, agrees.
“From a forward-looking air cargo perspective, SHINE’s future usage should push the airport’s volume of activity significantly upward,” Otterstein wrote in an email to The Gazette.
SC Aviation is banking on the renewed activity.
In addition to servicing its own fleet of aircraft, the company anticipates that other chartered flight companies and owners of chartered and recreational aircraft will get service work done at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport. They currently have scant access to such services regionally, he said.
“The option is now right in the backyard,” Morrison said. “Ultimately, that’s more fuel you pump, more fees, and that adds to more revenue for the airport.”
Morrison said SC Aviation expects to ratchet up chartered business flights out of the airport, but its focus is also broader: It wants to serve as a chartered aircraft maintenance hub regionally.
“We just hired two more mechanics last week,” Morrison said. “Having maintenance be a significant part of our focus we think is going to draw even more (air) traffic to Janesville. And it’s additional employment. (Aviation) mechanics, that’s a good-paying career, and it’s people that will spend back into the local economy.”