One of Columbus-Lowndes Airport fixed-base operator Jared Rabren's plans for the airport involves expanding hangar space to make room for more renters interested in storing their planes. Rabren, who has been FBO since January, has spent the past five months repairing airport facilities that fell into disrepair under previous leadership. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
Columbus-Lowndes Airport, shown in this November Dispatch file photo, fell into disrepair before its new fixed-base operator Jared Rabren took over maintenance of the airport in January. Rabren has been working to update facilities and ensuring aviation fuel is available to pilots.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
May 17, 2019 10:23:04 AM
Zero is not usually a good number. But to Jared Rabren, it's a measure of relief when it comes to the Columbus-Lowndes Airport.
Rabren had a lot to contend with when he took over as the airport's fixed-based operator (FBO) in January. The facilities had fallen into disrepair, the runway paint and pavement was cracking and there was hardly any fuel available to pilots flying in and out. Rabren knew he had to take care of those "basic things" before anything else at the airport could get done.
In other words, he had to clean up the negative before he could take the airport in a positive direction.
"Now that we've gotten things to level zero, to where they're supposed to be, I can start thinking about other things, which I'm excited for," Rabren said. "But to get to that point it took a lot of effort cleaning up equipment and taking care of things that should've been done regularly."
As FBO, Rabren is responsible for day-to-day operations and upkeep at the airport, including keeping the grass mowed and making sure aviation fuel and other services are available to pilots.
The airport, which is jointly supported by Lowndes County and the city of Columbus, boasts a 4,500-foot runway and hangar rental space to house up to 27 aircraft, mostly single-engine. Past FBOs did not fully maintain the runway, hangar interiors, fuel tanks and equipment, or the grounds, all of which Rabren said he addressed right away.
Building maintenance alone took him about two months to get the structures back to the condition they "needed to be in," and the airport is only just now going to start carrying aviation fuel again after being without for two months while equipment was upgraded or repaired.
"If those things had been taken care of earlier, it wouldn't have been an issue," Rabren said.
Rabren does much of the maintenance and upkeep himself to save money, trying to reserve the airport's annual budget of about $80,000 for projects and repairs too large or involved for him to handle alone. He also applies regularly for Federal Aviation Administration grants to help fund those projects.
Most recently, the FAA awarded the airport a $131,000 grant to resurface and repair the airport's cracked runway. The grant will account for 90 percent of the total project, with the remainder of the funding to come from state and local funds.
However, Rabren said he doesn't know when he'll have the money in-hand to begin the work. In the meantime, he said, the runway is usable, but its cracks can't get much worse without it becoming a hazard for planes to land.
"If there's something like that that we need done, I always try to get a grant or see how to keep costs down to take it out of the budget," Rabren said. "We have a really small budget out here, but there are some things that are just a safety issue like the runway. You can't let that go."
Acting on promises
When Rabren presented his proposal to operate the facility to the airport board back in November, he talked about plans to sublet the airport's maintenance hangar rather than try to hire a staff mechanic, build a sense of community among the lessees at the airport and try to draw more traffic. Almost six months later, he has not only acted on, but accomplished, most of those goals, something airport board members are impressed by, said board chairman Jeff Smith, who is also a county supervisor in District 4.
"The board is very satisfied with the direction of the airport," he said. "With time and support, I think he can take the airport in the direction we can be proud of. ... I'm really glad we retained his talent."
Before Rabren took over, the airport's hanger rental space was not entirely booked. Now it is, and has a wait list of about 12 interested renters, Rabren said. The full hangers, as well as the presence of mechanics subletting the space, has contributed to a sense of community he didn't see coming.
"I didn't expect that, honestly, but now it's making me think the next big thing to tackle is hangars," he said. "I know if I had more of them, I would fill them overnight. ... All the guys here have been really great about communicating what they need here and I think that's really contributed to this being a place that can compete with other airports. We just need to focus on making it look the way an airport should."
He said now that more and more renters are in the hangar, he is hoping to put together a town hall-style meeting with them to address any thoughts and concerns they have about the airport.
Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, who also sits on the board as a city official, said he sees the airport's growing success as a testament to Rabren's commitment.
"He's young and excited," he said. "I think he's the best FBO we've had in a long time. We've had a lot of turnover out there in the past, but he's really invested and dedicated to the work he's doing out there and it shows. It really does."
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