City seeks operator to develop airport and pay $1.2 million debt - with tough restrictions

OCEANSIDE -- Anyone who has flown knows the meaning of a holding pattern. Supporters of the Oceanside Municipal Airport apply that description to the airport now, as they wait to see if the city will succeed in finding a private operator for the...


OCEANSIDE -- Anyone who has flown knows the meaning of a holding pattern.

Supporters of the Oceanside Municipal Airport apply that description to the airport now, as they wait to see if the city will succeed in finding a private operator for the small airfield.

The city's request for proposals seeks a lot from a private operator.

The request wants someone to pay the airport's $1.2 million debt, build more hangars and tie-down spaces for aircraft, and construct an administration building with a restaurant. The operator also must pay the city 10 percent of gross profits.

It must do all this without operating a flight school or renting aircraft -- two of the more revenue-producing activities an airport can offer.

Finally, at the end of the 20- or 30-year contract, all improvements made by the private operator would belong to the city.

"What they're asking, it ain't going to work," said Joe Deggendorf, a former Oceanside airport manager who is now retired. "No one in their right mind would do it."

Pilots' rave reviews

Pilots seem to love the airfield on state Route 76, about two miles east of North Coast Highway.

The 50-acre airport, with a 3,000-foot runway, accommodates planes weighing less than 12,000 pounds -- primarily propeller-driven craft.

Pilots post comments on airports on an aviation-based Web site, AirNav.com, and the Oceanside airfield typically gets glowing reviews.

It is a "good place to stop for fuel," Ned Linch wrote July 1. "Small town airport with old timers offering help on how to get around L.A. while flying (under visual flight rules). I'll stop there again."

Rico Sharqawi wrote in May, "nice little airport. Only $5 overnight fee! Very much worth parking there and supporting this little airport."

Last year, John H. Tiner said he liked taking the bike path from the airport to the beach, and Marc Coan called the field "a little gem."

But the City Council has wavered in its support for the airport.

A master plan for improvements was written in 1994 and approved by the council in 1997, but it has not been implemented.

In recent years, city officials have considered turning the airport into a shopping center or residential neighborhood.

A stern warning from the Federal Aviation Administration last year ended that discussion and led to the city's search for an airport operator.

In a strongly worded letter in late January, FAA officials told Mayor Jim Wood that the airport must be maintained in perpetuity.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor reiterated that position recently.

"Oceanside Municipal Airport is an extremely valuable aviation asset," Gregor said in an interview via e-mail. "In accepting federal airport improvement grants, and using some of the money for land acquisition, the city committed to keeping the airport open indefinitely.

"The FAA would not agree to any request to close the airport."

The city has run the airfield since January 2003, taking over operations from Sea Winds Aviation, the last private company to lease it. At one time, in the mid- to late-1980s, there were 150 planes and 80,000 takeoffs and landings per year, Deggendorf said.

Now, there are 67 aircraft based at the airfield and fewer than 20,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

County-owned McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad has a 4,600-foot runway, 331 aircraft, more than 200,000 takeoffs and landings and two commercial airlines.

The Oceanside council's debate last year over commercial development at the airport site led the county to consider taking it over. County staff recommended against it, warning of legal and financial entanglements surrounding the airfield.

Now, the city awaits an Oct. 16 deadline for responses to its request for proposals from private operators.

Following master plan

The city has stipulated that the airport operator must build out the airport according to the 1994 master plan.

Understanding exactly what that would entail can be confusing.

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