Johnson County Airports Among Busiest in Kansas

Mar. 7--Johnson County may be home to the second- and fourth-busiest airports in Kansas, but Lee Metcalfe considers them local secrets.

Metcalfe, executive director of Johnson County Airport Commission, said many people know what Johnson County Executive Airport and New Century AirCenter have to offer, but they're in the minority.

"There's a whole bunch more who haven't got a clue, and most of them don't have a reason to have a clue," he said. "We're kind of a hidden asset as far as the majority of the people are concerned."

Last year, executive airport, 151st Street and Pflumm Road, had 78,000 operations, meaning take-offs and touchdowns. New Century, at 175th Street and Interstate 35, had about 58,000, making it the fourth-busiest airport in Kansas.

The executive airport, second to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in terms of traffic in the state, primarily serves clients with business aircraft and those who fly recreationally and for personal travel.

Metcalfe said about 30 percent of the flights at the air center are training flights. Two flight schools, one at Kansas City Aviation Center and the other, Air Associates of Kansas, are based at the airport. LifeNet and several charter services also are based at the air center.

The executive airport is on about 500 acres of land with a 4,100-foot single runway, parallel taxiways and a federal air traffic control tower.

Along with the standard aircraft services, airport businesses offer air charter, aircraft sales and flight instruction services from smaller single-engine aircraft up to corporate jets.

The airport was built as a naval auxiliary field during World War II. It was deeded to Olathe in 1951 and from the city to Johnson County in 1967. The Johnson County Commission created the Johnson County Airport Commission to manage, operate and improve the airport.

New Century has a 7,300-foot main runway with a 5,000-foot crosswind runway. Services at New Century include two full-service fixed base operators on the field providing fuel, lubrication and other services for all classes of reciprocating and turbine aircraft, seven days a week. Other services include air charter, aircraft sales, aircraft maintenance and flight training.

New Century originally was built as Olathe Naval Air Station in the early 1940s and served as the continental headquarters of the Naval Air Transport Service, the navy's in-house airline. The Airport Commission acquired the site in 1973, renaming it Johnson County Industrial Airport. The center's current name was adopted in 1995 to better reflect the advanced technology industries located at the New Century Business Park.

The Johnson County Airport Commission is in the process of updating master development plans for the two airports for the Federal Aviation Administration, a process that takes place every 10 years. While the long-range plan for the executive airport is to simply preserve it as it is, the plan for NewCentury is being revised.

The air center's original master plan allowed for scheduled airline service. A feasibility study conducted in 2001 said otherwise.

"The market just isn't big enough here in the Kansas City area to support two airports with scheduled airline service," Metcalfe said, citing Kansas City International Airport as the other such airport.

All provisions directly tied to having scheduled air service at the air center now are being removed.

"We are leaving in a provision in that their will be an area on the airfield where we would have the land available to do a passenger terminal and have air cargo," he said. "We think that still is a possibility for us."

The two airports also have a consistent economic impact on the county. A 1996 study reported 150 employees at executive airport directly involved in aviation. On the airfield at New Century, there are about 120 employees. There are an additional 200 tied to flight operations for corporations such as Garmin and Honeywell. An additional 4,000 employees are added among the 42 businesses and large corporations in the industrial park. Sprint has about 1,600 employees based out of the park.

The number of aircraft based at each airport is similar. About 280 are based at the executive airport and 220 are based at New Century.

"It's been pretty stable," Metcalfe said. "We've actually seen the number go down a little bit over the years. That's a national trend."

Metcalfe said the drop in numbers in the general aviation fleet is primarily due to the fact that airplanes are becoming obsolete quicker than they are being replaced by new aircraft.

"The FAA is predicting that trend will be reduced as the new very light jets come on line," Metcalfe added. "There's five or six models due to come out in the next few years."

The number of pilots in Johnson County is higher on average per capita than the national average, Metcalfe said.

"That shouldn't be a surprise," he added. "Johnson County is a pretty affluent county."

There are about 2,400 licensed pilots in the county -- about half of whom are active flyers. Metcalfe said he expects this number to drop in the near future.

"We're seeing that kind of baby boom era of pilots moving out of the active pilots group and new pilots aren't replacing them at the same rate," he said.

"Fewer people are starting that whole process because of the cost. People who are currently flying are giving up flying because they can't afford it anymore."

Many high level officials and dignitaries have flown into New Century, including Dan Quayle and Barbara Bush. Metcalfe said Air Force One also has flown into the air center.

"They've been in here at least for or five times that I can recall," he said. "We've got community leaders and political leaders coming and going all during the day."

Military aircraft, including F18 fighter jets, also have flown into the air center because of the U.S. Army Reserve's presence.

"We've probably seen most of the active models of aircraft in here at one time or another," Metcalfe said. "It's pretty cool when the F18s come in."

As many of the elements of the airports remain the same, Metcalfe suspects one constant will continue to frustrate him.

"I've been here 17 years," he said. "One of the things that has been a challenge is helping the community appreciate the value of the airports."

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