Growth Takes Off at Van Nuys Airport

Jan. 30 -- Marking the end to a decade-long moratorium on growth, Van Nuys Airport is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar building boom, with charter companies scrambling to meet soaring demand for private air service.

One charter company announced plans Monday for a state-of-the-art new terminal at the historic city-owned airport, while another plans to break ground this spring on a $40 million construction project.

"As private aviation becomes more affordable and mainstream, we've reached the point where we need to expand our operations to accommodate the new business," said Jon Winthrop, chairman and CEO of The Air Group, which announced its plans Monday.

The Air Group plans to add about seven flights a day once its new 98,000-square-foot hangar and office are complete, probably in August. The project will allow the company to consolidate operations from three separate offices to a single location.

In addition, Million Air plans to add 220,000 square feet of hangar space as part of a $40 million addition that will take at least three years to complete, charter company President Harold Lee said. Construction will begin in about two months.

The city airports department is also negotiating to bring in a new company interested in developing the Jet Center, a vacant building at the northeast corner of airport.

The boom comes some 16 months after the City Council's approval of the Van Nuys Airport master plan, a blueprint for managing future growth. No construction took place during the decade it took to hammer out the agreement, which impacts both commercial charter companies and pilots who fly as a hobby.

Coby King, chairman of the Van Nuys Citizens Advisory Council, said officials factored in the ability of charter companies to redevelop when they were negotiating the master plan.

"In return for taking a pretty good chunk of land out of future development, it was understood that certain leaseholders would be able to improve and expand and include more commercial jet activities," King said.

The expanded commercial hangars will also mean more revenue for Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that owns and operates the airport. Hangar space for jets commands significantly higher fees than for propeller planes, officials said.

"Yes, they are going to pay more," said airport Assistant Manager Ulises Aguirre, adding that the additional revenue won't be enough to offset an operating deficit for the facility.

The master plan sets aside about 39 acres for propeller planes, and companies that cater to those pilots see opportunities, as well.

Skytrails Aviation, for example, is considering expanding the square footage of its propeller-plane operation.

"Our business is stagnant at this point because we aren't able to grow," said Skytrails President Mark Sullivan. "I can't even hire people because I don't have desks and space for them."

A new propeller park is planned for the former Air National Guard site at Balboa Boulevard and Stagg Street. LAWA expects to ask for development proposals next week, employees said.

Some propeller planes will be moved during construction, but Elliot Sanders, president of the Van Nuys Propeller Aircraft Association, says they won't go far.

"I'm confident we're not being swept off the field," Sanders said. "They are going to be moved to another location on the field."

City Councilman Tony Cardenas, whose district includes the airport, has been following the construction plans and supports the improvements.

"It's positive in the sense that this area had been shut down and now we are looking at creating jobs and bringing revenue into the city," said Jose Cornejo, chief deputy to Cardenas.

Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino and a longtime critic of the airport, complained about the so-called Stage 3 jets used by The Air Group and Million Air, and said there should be restrictions on the planes' activities.

"There's not a phaseout, there's only a cap," Silver said. "That's like saying, 'We're not going to get rid of the juvenile delinquents in your neighborhood, we're just not going to let more come in.'"

Winthrop of The Air Group said the modern Stage 3 jets are quieter than a lawn mower and said restrictions are unnecessary.

"In a perfect world, you would have no airport here and no noise here," Winthrop said. But the airport generates taxes, paying for fire, police and emergency services, he added.

"Everybody forgets that that doesn't come free."

Staff Writer Rick Orlov contributed to this story.

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