November 20, 2018 10:41:28 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
Just about every weekend, Randy Gray gives flying lessons from the Columbus-Lowndes Airport on Fabritech Road near Highway 69.
It's a special place for the 60-year-old Gray. Four decades ago, it's where he took his written exam to become a licensed pilot.
But now, he said, he'd love it if he could just get gas there.
"It really needs to be better maintained," said Gray, who noted the grass, at times, is so high it obstructs pilots' view of the runway lights when they are trying to land. "But I'd really like to see the fuel tank full. That's the main thing."
Gray, a Brooksville native who works for International Paper in Columbus, is far from the only one who has noticed the deteriorated state of affairs at the once buzzing airport operated jointly by Columbus and Lowndes County. Earlier this month, the city council and county board of supervisors -- at the recommendation of the airport board -- fired Columbus Aviation LLC, the fixed-base operator (FBO) that has managed the airport since August 2014, a little less than a year before the company's contract was due to expire.
The airport board will consider proposals from three potential FBOs at its Nov. 29 meeting. In the meantime, the city, as lead agent for the airport, is maintaining the facility.
David Armstrong, the city chief operations officer who sits on the airport board along with two other city officials and three county officials, said Columbus Aviation owner Claude Hendrickson was routinely letting the aviation fuel tank sit empty.
Jet fuel is always available, but since the airport's runway is 500 feet too short to support jet traffic, that tank sits largely unused.
In September, Armstrong said, he urged Hendrickson to refill the aviation fuel tank, reminding him such maintenance was specified in the contract. Hendrickson complied, but weeks later he had allowed the tank to empty again.
When Armstrong contacted Hendrickson a second time, the FBO owner indicated he could not continue managing the airport to the contract's specifications.
"It was a very amicable split," Armstrong said. "I like Claude a lot. He's a nice guy. He just lost interest in managing the airport."
Falling on hard times
The Columbus-Lowndes Airport boasts a 4,500-foot runway and hangar rental space to house up to 27 aircraft. Pilots keep the hangars at near capacity, Armstrong said, mostly with single-engine planes.
In just the last five years, the city and county have used more than $800,000 in Federal Aviation Administration grants to improve the airport -- ranging from airfield drainage projects and obstruction removal to renovations to the terminal -- for which local entities only had to provide 5 percent in matching funds. FAA provided 90 percent and the state of Mississippi provided 5 percent.
According to information The Dispatch found on the AirNav website, the airport averages 33 flights per day, 52 percent of which are transient general aviation, 44 percent local general aviation and the remainder classified as either military or air taxi.
Despite the investments, hangar rental and use, airport board members say circumstances and a string of bad luck, especially where FBOs are concerned, continue to hamper the airport's viability.
"We need a fixed-base operator who has a knowledge and passion for what they are doing," said airport board president Jeff Smith, who is also a county supervisor. "Recently we just haven't had that."
The city and county pay the FBO, as an independent contractor, $40,000 annually to manage the airport. The city /county take on major renovation expenses, mostly through grants, as well as pay utility costs. The FBO takes on daily maintenance and operations, and in turn keeps revenue from fuel sales and hangar rental.
Generally, Armstrong said, an FBO contract is more cost-effective than hiring internal staff to run the airport. Now, the city and county share a roughly $70,000 annual budget dedicated to the airport.
"If we tried to staff it ourselves, it would take a manager and two assistants earning wages and benefits," Armstrong said. "That would balloon the budget to probably $150,000."
The Taloney family managed the airport successfully for more than two decades before quitting the gig when its last contract expired 12 years ago, Armstrong said. Since then, there's been a revolving door of FBOs, all of which came in with big ideas that never came to fruition.
Some FBO busts were more prominent than others. Billy Scarborough, who had the contract before Hendrickson, was arrested in May for embezzling 2,000 gallons of fuel with a Public Works fuel card in 2014.
Smith said an FBO with integrity, solid administrative skills and a good rapport with pilots would help things get back on track. He would also like to see someone local, as the last two have resided out of the area.
"When we hire someone from out of the area, it's hard for me to envision they would have the same concerns as a local operator would have," he said.
Profitability issues, infrastructure needs
Even the best FBO would face challenges at the local airport, Armstrong said.
First, most commercial air traffic goes through Golden Triangle Regional Airport, which offers multi-passenger Delta jet flights to Atlanta and is located just 10 miles west of Columbus.
Plus, as both Smith and Armstrong noted, the hangars need updating to expand rental potential, and the runway needs to be lengthened to accommodate jet traffic in order to promote more profitable use.
"We want an airport pilots can use generally without restriction," Smith said. "Right now, we have a number of restrictions."
A standard FAA grant might pay for much of the runway project, but grants to help with hangar updates require a 50-percent local match, which Armstrong said the city cannot afford right now.
"Honestly, as it is, there's not a lot of money to be made at the airport," Armstrong said. "That's the biggest issue when it comes to finding an FBO."
Closing the airport, though, could be the costliest option of all. FAA grants require recipients to keep funded projects in use for their "useful life" or 20 years, depending on the project. If the city and county closed the airport before then, the entities would have to repay FAA the depreciated value of all federal grant funds the airport received as far back as 1998 -- a cost that could be in the millions.
Also, Armstrong said, it would be a shame to shutter an airport he feels is still viable.
"We've had some struggles out there. I'm not going to lie," Armstrong said. "It's a difficult business, but I believe we have a nice airport that has so much potential."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.