The Robert LaFleur Airport in Waterville saw a 60 percent increase in fuel sales in the last fiscal year and a 150 percent rise since 2020.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sales skyrocketed from 36,844 gallons of fuel in 2019 to 50,842 gallons in 2020, which surpassed the airport’s goal, Manager Randy Marshall Jr. said. In 2021, sales shot up again when the airport sold 92,486 gallons of fuel, he said.
Although the pandemic paused travel for many commercial passengers across the country, smaller airports with specialized services such as the Robert LaFleur Airport, which offers deicing among other features found at larger airports, saw major growth. It’s likely more people were inclined to fly privately, and the Waterville airport is quick and convenient for business, Marshall Jr. said.
He also credited revitalization efforts in downtown Waterville — including the Lockwood Hotel set to open in August, the new Paul J. Schupf Art Center being built and major reconstruction downtown — plus sporting events at campus facilities, with drawing parents, investors and others to the region.
“For our small GA [general aviation] airport, the growth is mind-boggling,” Marshall Jr. said. “It’s not just about the airport improving and increasing traffic. When you go back to the roots of why we’re here and why we do what we do, that means more people are visiting our community.”
Airports in Pittsfield, Presque Isle, Sanford and other places also fared well throughout the pandemic. Some secured major funding for improvement projects, while others saw spikes in revenue and takeoff and landing numbers that exceeded those of much larger airports in Bangor and Portland.
An uptick in airport use means people are supporting local restaurants and businesses, creating a trickle-down effect in the region, Marshall Jr. said.
The airport also collected $40,050 in landing fees thanks to the surge in traffic — a 436 percent increase compared with the previous year, Marshall Jr. said. The airport charges $100-$125 for landing fees, depending on the aircraft.
In the last fiscal year, the airport had 95 callouts, which is when staff provide service to aircrafts during irregular hours. The airport usually budgets about $4,000 a year for employees who respond to callouts, which last year generated $13,000 in revenue, making a profit, Marshall Jr. said.
Being centrally located in the state with easy access to Interstate 95 makes Waterville a regional hub, he said.
Airport users appreciate the facility’s offerings despite being a small airport, he said. For example, there are deicing services, an automated weather system for aircrafts plus other technology, experienced staff with National Air Transportation Association certification, and a 5,500-foot runway — longer than Augusta State Airport’s runway. A skydiving company also began operations in 2021.
The airport offers an individualized experience for flyers, working to make their transition from the aircraft to a vehicle seamless so they can get to their destination quickly, setting the airport apart from others, Marshall Jr. said.
Air traffic comes from a wide range of flyers, including those tied to Colby and Thomas colleges, parents visiting kids at summer camps, skiers and snowmobilers in the winter months and people traveling for business, Marshall Jr. said. People from agricultural and industrial businesses and engineering firms in central Maine frequent the airport, he said.
Over Colby College’s graduation weekend, a dozen corporate jets were lined up at the airport, Waterville’s City Manager Stephen Daly said during a recent city council meeting.
Increased activity is an indicator that revitalization downtown is paying off, he said. That includes a series of projects from Colby College, such as Greene Block + Studios and the Lockwood Hotel, and ongoing construction to make Main Street and the surrounding area more pedestrian friendly.
Grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration covered a recently completed taxiway project, which cost about $4.6 million, he said. The airport also had its primary runway reconstructed as part of a $5.5 million project in 2015. It has received about $13 million total in federal grant funding since Marshall Jr. became manager in 2011.
“In essence, in the last 10 years or so, every surface at the airport has been repaved,” he said, noting smooth runways, clean and well-maintained safety areas, plus other features make a difference to those who use the airport.
Marshall Jr. is optimistic that traffic trends will continue, especially now that the new taxiway is complete. Earlier this week, city councilors approved a lease for someone to build a hangar at the airport, and Marshall Jr. has heard from someone interested in opening a restaurant and brewery on the property as well.