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Archive for Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ready for takeoff: Business picking up at airport

Visitors, from left, Roy Jackson, Joel Murphy and Dax Gaskill walk to the terminal after flying their Cessna plane two hours from Hugoton to catch a Kansas University men’s basketball game last week. Lawrence Municipal Airport north of the Kansas River has been providing air transport services for years.

Visitors, from left, Roy Jackson, Joel Murphy and Dax Gaskill walk to the terminal after flying their Cessna plane two hours from Hugoton to catch a Kansas University men’s basketball game last week. Lawrence Municipal Airport north of the Kansas River has been providing air transport services for years.

December 5, 2010

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It was all very big-city.

A $45 million Citation business jet sits on the apron of Lawrence Municipal Airport. It dwarves the 10 other planes — both in size and envy — parked at the airport awaiting their passengers to return from the big game between Kansas University and UCLA.

In the darkness to the north, a blinking red light of an incoming plane approaches. The hum of its turbo props grows louder, and a line of media members from Lawrence and Kansas City begin jockeying for position outside the terminal’s entrance.

The plane was from Tulsa, and the rumor of the day was that the athletic director of the University of Tulsa was on that plane, set to perhaps become the next A.D. at Kansas University.

Fuel trucks wait on the tarmac at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The airport just north of downtown has been providing air transport services for years.

Fuel trucks wait on the tarmac at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The airport just north of downtown has been providing air transport services for years.

An airport employee with the funny-looking flashlights directs the plane into its parking spot on the apron. The doors open and a couple emerge. The TV lights come on. Cameras flash. Reporters drift toward the couple’s path. By the time they get to the door, the doubt had already begun to emerge.

Are you going to be the next athletic director at Kansas University?

No. Not that he knew of. They were Linda and Doug Farquharson. KU basketball fans from the Tulsa area who decided to fly up for the game.

That is about as big-city as it gets at the Lawrence Municipal Airport.

• • •

Inside the terminal — call it Terminal A if you would like, but there is no B or C — a living-room-style Christmas tree sits in the lobby. Not too far away, an old control panel from a small plane is on the floor for the children, or those who wish they still were.

A single flat-screen TV is off to the side, but it is not on. Instead, music from a dorm-room-like stereo system plays.

And, no, there are no TSA agents doing pat downs anywhere in the facility. But this holiday season, as big-city airports take their knocks, there are plenty of TSA jokes from the passengers departing their private charters. One whips out a smart phone and pulls up a doctored photo of a liberal Congressman with a rubber glove on his hand ready to, let’s say, greet a line of passengers.

Earlier in the day, before the Allen Fieldhouse Air Force landed, there actually was a sign on the airport counter directing people who needed help to go to the hangar next door.

In the hangar you can find Lloyd Hetrick, owner of Hetrick Air Services and the man who has been running most day-to-day operations at the airport since the early 1980s. Hetrick — who grew up at Topeka’s Philip Billard Municipal Airport watching his father run that facility — has his offices in the front of the building. In the back is a shop. It currently is full with six planes, one flown in from as far away as Arkansas, to have work done.

During the day, there are usually four employees at the airport — Hetrick, an office manager, a mechanic, and a line man who hooks and tows airplanes from one spot to the other and does various jobs on site. There are no air-traffic controllers or anything like that. Just an office radio that occasionally squelches with the voice of a pilot who is about to land.

The airport is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., although it does close at 6 p.m. on a couple of holidays. Those are the terms of the contract Hetrick has with the city of Lawrence, which owns the airport grounds and most of the buildings. Hetrick pays a lease rate to the city in exchange for being able to sell services at the airport. Those include repair services, charter flights ($2.50 a mile for a plane of up to four people), and flight instruction. But the big one is airplane and jet fuel that sells for about $5 a gallon, including a special 5-cent flowage fee that goes directly to the city. Some days it is not a bad business. Once a jet fueled up with 2,500 gallons. More often it is about 700 to 800 gallons.

Business, though, hasn’t been great lately. The economic downturn has taken a toll. Fuel sales in 2009 were off by about 35 percent, Hetrick estimates. Hetrick isn’t convinced that it was necessarily because private aircraft owners had run out of money.

“What hurt us as much as anything were those GM and other car executives flying their multi-million dollar jets into Washington, D.C., asking for a bailout,” Hetrick said. “It was just a real bad image, and lots of business types were nervous about being seen in private jets.”

But business has begun to pick up again, and Hetrick believes security hassles at major airports may cause more people to consider flying private. The city currently is preparing a new master plan for the airport, and Hetrick would like the city to consider lengthening the main runway to accommodate what he thinks will be greater jet traffic in the future.

He also watches with a little bit of unease as he expects some new federal security regulations to filter down to small airports. But he hopes not too many.

“We’re not going to get into that foreplay stuff,” he says.

• • •

A small plane just south Lawrence Municipal Airport prepares to turn and make its approach to land. The flag is at the front entrance of the airport terminal.

A small plane just south Lawrence Municipal Airport prepares to turn and make its approach to land. The flag is at the front entrance of the airport terminal.

Although lacking all the trappings of a big-city airport, Lawrence Municipal does attract big-city names and money. On this day, the $45 million Citation created a buzz. It was flying in from Los Angeles. As soon as it landed, a black limo pulled up to its side door and whisked away its eight passengers.

But it didn’t whisk them far. Just to the front door of the terminal, where several got out to use the most important facility in any airport: the restroom. Seven UCLA fans and one KU alumnus from 1990.

The KU alumnus milled about in the lobby and enthusiastically answered “absolutely,” when asked if this was the best way to fly. It was unclear whether he had chartered the plane, but it was clear that he had chartered the bar on it.

He gave his last name. I had trouble spelling it, although he pointed out it was on a building at KU.

There are days that Hetrick wishes he would bring a camera to work. The airport has hosted several celebrities. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with Hillary Clinton, have flown into the airport. Actor Don Johnson once flew in. Hetrick remembers because Johnson gave his daughter a peck on the cheek. NFL great Terry Bradshaw flew in to look at some horses. After KU’s 1988 national championship, coach Larry Brown met with the owner of the San Antonio Spurs in the airport’s pilots lounge. A few days later, Larry was gone.

All that celebrity stuff is fun, but Hetrick said it really doesn’t get at the meat of the facility. Hetrick said the airport is an important cog in the area’s commerce. Certainly KU — which out of the 59 aircraft based at the airport has the only jet — is the major traffic generator. But Hetrick said executives from many national companies — he listed Kroger, Hy-vee, Walmart, Target and a few others — fly directly into the facility to check on their Lawrence operations.

“I know there are people who think it is just rich guys playing with their toys, but really there is a lot of business that is done out here,” Hetrick said.

Dean Beliera — a pilot who had just used one of the airport’s two courtesy cars to grab a bite to eat in Lawrence while waiting for his Hays-bound passengers to arrive — sees a lot of these small airports. He said the public probably underestimates their importance.

“You know what, a lot of money and power comes through an airport like this,” Beliera said.

• • •

But on this day, the new athletic director for Kansas University does not come through the doors.

Or at least we don’t think so.

“I don’t know, maybe I should apply,” Doug Farquharson says after having the bright lights pointed at him.

But there is a problem with that plan: getting to the university. As his wife, Linda, chats with her newfound friends, Doug becomes more agitated as he looks at his watch.

“I’ll tell you how important we are,” he says. “We’re so important our son is already 10 minutes late to pick us up.”

Ah. An airport delay — Lawrence style.

Comments

Lawrence_Pilot 3 years, 4 months ago

Non-issue:

Small planes don't carry enough fuel to be a bomb.

The pilots almost always KNOW their passengers, and they load the passenger's luggage themselves.

Charter passengers ARE screened against the No Fly List.

Next?

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Lawrence_Pilot 3 years, 4 months ago

Uses for small airports:

Air ambulance. Not so important for Lawrence, but what if you lived in Colby? I think the naysayers here should tell the people of Colby that they are not entitled to air ambulance service when their children are injured in car wrecks. (KU uses aircraft to send nurses from the Med Center all over the state...please tell residents in those areas they are no longer allowed this benefit.)

Crop dusting: Well over a dozen KS airports are used by cropdusters to keep KS in the Top 10 agriculturally.

Flight training: See above: If not for small airports, where would the airlines get new pilots?

Search and rescue. When someone is lost, it's the Civil Air Patrol and Highway Patrol who use planes to find them. Those planes need a place to land and refuel, right?

Aerial photography...satellites don't offer sufficient resolution for many projects, so photos are taken from the air.

Personal transportation: There is simply no better way to travel than by private plane. No lines, you set the schedule. In western KS, the percentage of pilots among the population is far higher. WIth small planes, they can continue to live remotely and not experience too much difficulty getting somewhere for pleasure or biz. If you want to have a conversation about subsidizing Rural AMerica, then fine, let's talk roads in remote areas, schools in remote areas, and agriculture subsidies.

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pace 3 years, 4 months ago

I am just creeped out by the idea that low security for planes and passengers are a real selling point. I don't want my tax money to make a nice big window for people who want to avoid security. So the guy brags that he won't check to see if people are armed when they hire a private plane. He makes fun of the pat downs.He is taking a lot on himself to decide that he doesn't need to have serious security measures consistently in place. I got a pat down and didn't mind it, i think security at airports is a serious matter, I don't want Strong Hall to go on the same list as the twin towers. For people who don't think it could happen here, I pray you are right but I happen to think security is very important for an airport.

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Lawrence_Pilot 3 years, 4 months ago

I learned to fly at the Lawrence airport the summer after High School. I have since flown cargo, and for the airlines, and I have taught dozens of others to fly. I know many others who learned here and now fly for the airlines. Just where do you think the airlines will get pilots if there are no airports where they can be trained?

I'm a real Fat Cat who makes $30K a year or so. I fly into LWC in borrowed airplanes, but I have also owned small planes jointly with other pilots. I spend about $5K a year on personal travel in light aircraft. A real Fat Cat, I am.

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Lawrence_Pilot 3 years, 4 months ago

FUNDING:

5-cent "flowage fee" on the sale of fuel at the airport. We could raise it to 10 cents, but LWC already has one of the highest fuel prices in 100 mi.

Aircraft based in KS also pay personal property tax. On a $10M plane, a 3% tax is $300K a year. Unfortunately, this just goes into the state and county's general funds and is not earmarked for aviation infrastructure.

There is 21.9 cent per gal. tax on jet fuel assessed by the federal government. Private aircraft users have agreed to allow it to be raised by 10 cents to help pay for updates to the National AIrspace System. On a business jet burning 400 gallons per hour, it's already nearly $100 contributed to the Aviation Trust Fund for each hour of flight. For a little 4-seat Cessna, it's more like $1.60 per hour. The Congress has traditionally "borrowed" all of the funds in the Trust Fund to spend on other stuff and make the deficit look smaller.

I'm not sure if KS also levies a per-gallon tax, but many states do.

A portion of airline ticket taxes go to "reliever" airports like this one so that private aircraft don't have to use airline airports like KCI. KCI would be 5 times busier if all the general aviation aircraft that currently use airports within 50 mi. of KCI had to use KCI. Hello delays!

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Sick_of_Right_Wingers 3 years, 4 months ago

Funding: There is a 5cent "flowage fee" on the sale of fuel at the airport. Perhaps it should be raised to 10 cents (although Lawrence already has one of the highest fuel prices within 100 mi.)

Aircraft based in KS also pay personal property tax. Perhaps it should be dedicated to aviation infrastructure instead of just going to the general fund.

There is 21.9 cents per gal. of jet fuel taxed at the federal level. It is slated to go up by 10 cents to pay for improvements to the national airspace system. When you figure a medium-sized business jet uses around 400 gallons per hour, that's $88 per HOUR that it adds to the Aviation Trust Fund (raided by Congress and not used for purpose intended) .

I'm not sure if KS also levies a per-gallon tax, but many states do. Adding 5 cents a gallon wouldn't hurt, but I'd want the money dedicated to aviation infrastructure.

Finally, a portion of airline ticket taxes goes to "reliever" airports like this one so that private aircraft don't have to use airline airports like KCI.

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macon47 3 years, 4 months ago

we subsidize the mt buses, and the library for the po folk why not the airport for the folks who pay the taxes that support the welfare pimps ??

ps, never rode the bus, been to the library (except to donate books,) and never been to the airport

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Seamus 3 years, 4 months ago

Amazing how the "Joe the Plumber" syndrome has addled the minds of the masses. I guess spending money to subsidize something that is enjoyed by only a few is a wise investment while passenger rail is a subsidy. Just more proof that our education system has failed and we are the descendants of the failures of Europe.

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wprop 3 years, 4 months ago

courtesy cars...........wow ....... 25+ yrs. not one comercial plane has landed to use the "terminal".....the 5 cent tax on fuel...... if they sell 1,000,000(one million) gal. we the tax payers get $50,000.......and these are the people who are against the rest of us receiving health care....

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walter_sobchak 3 years, 4 months ago

Business aviation contributes $150 billion to U.S. economy and employs more than 1.2 million people. Let's get real here, this is something to be supported.

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Scott Morgan 3 years, 4 months ago

Very nicely written Chad. Big time article for a small city.

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Stacy Napier 3 years, 4 months ago

Snap as long as it includes Merrill's house I good with it.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 4 months ago

"Hetrick said the airport is an important cog in the area’s commerce. Certainly KU — which out of the 59 aircraft based at the airport has the only jet — is the major traffic generator. But Hetrick said executives from many national companies — he listed Kroger, Hy-vee, Walmart, Target and a few others — fly directly into the facility to check on their Lawrence operations."

That's all well and good, but what this particular reader would really like to know is what part of the true costs of building, maintaining and operating this airport are these corporate/luxury users picking up? How much corporate welfare is required to keep these jets in the air, and landing at boutique airports, just to save corporate bigwigs from having to rub elbows with the hoipolloi?

Can you give us any of those details Chad and JW?

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VTHawk 3 years, 4 months ago

That Citation X is a beautiful airplane (a bit large for Lawrence, as well).

The idea that individuals can own and operate an airplane is one of the truly amazing freedoms of the US of A. Being able to fly from small towns across the state/region to watch KU events can't really be overstated, and we should encourage such private pilots. I regret that I don't yet have a license ($), but catering to folks who fly in for games and events really does support the local economy.

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Flap Doodle 3 years, 4 months ago

Oh, do let us bulldoze east Lawrence and put in a grass landing field. It'll be like totally green and stuff.

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Richard Heckler 3 years, 4 months ago

Tax Payers Over Extended!

Taxpayers should be allowed to vote for or against all new capital improvement projects and rate increases. Nothing moves forward without voter approval.

New capital improvement projects are in fact increasing the tax bills. There is no way to get a budget under control when there is constant expansion of the infrastructure.

Adding miles and miles of new water and sewer lines is no way to rein the budget. .

No one has a clue when the economy will bounce back so why are commissioners approving new tax increases by way of new capital improvements? Who will be paying for these increases?

"National surveys (through American Farmland Trust) show that county costs in services required by farmland and open space generally is only 35 to 60¢ for every $1.00 in revenues they generate, producing a net gain for counties. "

"In contrast, residential use in counties costs $1.11 to $1.60 in services for every $1.00 generated."

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Richard Heckler 3 years, 4 months ago

Soooo what this article is about is to butter up taxpayers to fork over MORE of our local big government tax dollars.

A grant was denied recently for further expansion. This tells me the plan presented did not warrant the money that would have been provided. So why should local taxpayers be forced to cough up the dough?

Where does city hall get the idea that voters want our tax dollars spent this way? Put the matter before the voters!

The next question is asking why were local taxpayers forced to vote on new sales taxes for road repair,The T and the library rehab project? We are consistently being the told the city could not afford those basic projects yet when the airport wants millions for new water and sewer lines plus airport expansion taxpayers do not get to vote on this spending?

Put the matter before the voters!

Where does the money magically come from? I am not impressed that a few people fly into our small town airport to watch basketball games. That is no indication our small town airport for this small town needs expanding.

Put the matter before the voters!

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