Sep. 2--It's common knowledge among pilots that North Perry Airport is less convenient and comfortable than other general aviation airports.
But Broward County's Aviation Department has spent the past two years meeting with tenants, consultants and residents at North Perry to come up with ways to change that.
The department plans to invest $12.2 million over the next five years to extend a runway and make other improvements it hopes will bring in more business to the historic Pembroke Pines airport.
"They've got nothing there, the terminals are old and haven't been updated in years," said Isaac Bachar, 51, a Coral Springs pilot and former flight school owner.
Perry's West Broward location is far from Broward's business and cultural hubs, and tends to attract "weekend pilots" who lack the confidence and experience to land at busier runways. The county's other general aviation airport, Fort Lauderdale Executive, is twice the size, and has a much longer runway that can accommodate larger, commercial jets.
"The market will continue to grow. The airport needs to accommodate them," said Mike Nonnemacher, director of operations for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and North Perry Airport. "The facilities are old and some are damaged from Hurricane Wilma."
Most of the money will come from bonds to be paid back by leases, parking fees and landing fees collected from major airlines at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The biggest proposed change at North Perry would extend a runway parallel to Pembroke Road by 500 feet, so it could accommodate seven-passenger, very light jets expected to hit the market next year.
The jets will be the first that are light enough to land at North Perry and carry more than five people.
The extension of the runway would also allow the planes to reach a higher elevation sooner, which reduces ground noise, said North Perry Airport Manager Nina Demeo.
Other projects are repaving two runways, connecting to the Pembroke Pines city sewer system, and improving runway lighting.
North Perry Airport's annual operating budget of $749,611 is partially subsidized by the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, although finance officials say they can't quantify the smaller airport's deficit because all the fees from rents, parking and other uses are mixed into one account.
During a brief presentation on Tuesday, consultants suggested that the airport needs to find a way to generate more income to pay for itself and the proposed capital improvements.
But tenants say that rents are so high they can barely stay in business as it is. Four buildings have remained vacant for at least a year, Demeo said.
Haim Molcho's Hollywood Aviation sells jet fuel and rents hangar space. Molcho said he feels ignored by county commissioners.
"We don't get any attention," he said. "All they know is to raise our rent."
Molcho complains that his jet fuel sales have declined from 8,000 to about 3,000 gallons per month over the past several years.
The airport has not fully recovered from increased regulations on flight schools following the September 11th attacks, Demeo said.
She cited 2006 statistics that showed the airport logged just under 163,000 landings and takeoffs. "That's half the capacity of what these four runways can sustain," Demeo said.
In 2000, North Perry, which houses television news helicopters, five flight schools, air ambulance services and air banner advertising, had logged 203,550 landings and take-offs.
After the terrorist attacks, usage plummeted for the next three years, then began to rebound modestly.
Demeo remains optimistic. She said traffic increased 12 percent from 2005 to 2006.
'It's not necessarily 'build it and they will come.' You don't come just because you have more pavement or a taxi has been overlayed," Demeo said. "It's generally coming back."
"There are people coming forward with business applications and the momentum has started. We hope it continues," she said.
Pembroke Pines Commissioner Carl Shechter, whose district includes residents near the 536-acre airfield, said they don't mind the runway extension, as long as aircraft weight is limited, to keep out larger planes, which officials have agreed to do.
"That's important because this entire area is residential," he said. "The problem the community has is that we don't want to see it become a commercial airport."
Longtime pilot and flight instructor George Argy, 59, who has been flying professionally for 32 years, likes the lazy, low-key nature of North Perry.
"It's nice because it's not like a major international airport," Argy said.
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