Lebanon Airport continues to improve

WEST LEBANON -- After three months on the job, the interim manager of Lebanon Airport says he and his staff are making great strides in improving the airport's turbulent financial situation.

David Gobin, interim manager and local business consultant, said strategic changes designed to increase revenue and decrease expenses have amounted to nearly $4 million in cost-cutting or additional income that the city will realize over the next few years.

The problem, Gobin said, was that although the staff was and is capable of operating a safe airport, "the business management and financial skills required to manage the airport's stabilization, execute or develop strategy, perform property development, project management or real estate management were absent and have been for a long time."

The eighth manager of Lebanon Airport in less than four years, Gobin has sought to improve relationships between the airport staff and other city departments. Through a partnership with the Lebanon Fire Department, the airport recently earned a new certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA upgraded Lebanon Airport from a Class 3 to a Class 1 facility, paving the way for larger passenger planes. Effective Sept. 1, the new certification means Lebanon's municipal airport can handle commercial aircraft and unscheduled commercial charter flights with more than 30 passengers, said Jay Fitzgerald, airport operations manager.

On Sept. 5, Colgan Air, which operates commercial air service from Lebanon to LaGuardia International Airport in New York, plans to change over its fleet of 19-seat Beechcraft airplanes to 34-seat Saab airplanes. The switch to larger planes brings the convenience of on-board restrooms as well as a flight attendant and beverage service.

To meet FAA requirements for a Class 1 airport, the city has to staff a previously vacant airport fire station with trained firefighters 15 minutes before and after any arrival or departure. "The personnel are trained at a higher level than they have been in several years and they're going to be on site," Fitzgerald said.

Gobin, whose three-month contract with the city has been extended until at least the end of the year, said he's continuing a multi-pronged approach to collecting information about the impact the airport has on the regional economy, its financial status and the potential for it to become a viable city business.

Paid for mostly by the FAA, simultaneous studies of the airport's physical assets, its economic impact and the air-travel market are ongoing. Early findings have shown that Lebanon Airport services only a small fraction of the 170,000 air travel trips made by passengers in the Upper Valley.

"Lebanon Airport only benefits to the tune of just under 10,000 of those, but the survey said they'd love to come here if the airport has the services and facilities that the market demands, and they'd like to see more destinations besides LaGuardia," Gobin said.

Meanwhile, a hangar construction project is under way on a newly built tarmac near the airport's passenger terminal. Steel arrived last week to begin erecting two new buildings that will each contain eight hangars for private planes and two box hangars for corporate jets.

Fitzgerald said the project is scheduled for completion Nov. 5, "but I would like to see one building done prior to that."

Airport officials say high demand for corporate jet storage in recent years drove the decision to build four box hangars instead of two as originally planned. Lease revenue from the hangars is one way the city plans to fight off mounting deficits in airport operations that have swelled to more than $500,000.

A city ordinance requires the airport to sustain itself financially without the use of taxpayer money -- a goal that has so far remained unattainable.

To further increase revenues, Gobin said, the city plans to turn vacant restaurant space inside the terminal into conference rooms with a catering service and eventually add a second travel destination.