Private Aviation Builds Columbus Airport's Community

It took Trish Coffey just a few months of working in Columbus Metropolitan Airport's gift shop to get the community's impression of the airport.

After the 32-year-old told a group of friends where she worked, one responded, "It's funny when your town's airport is smaller than your Wal-Mart."

For the record: Wal-Mart on Airport Thruway is 136,643 square feet; the commercial terminal of the airport is roughly 53,000 square feet.

But that's just the commercial terminal.

The hobby of flying takes up more space -- and creates business at the airport, too. Between the general aviation base operator's lease and hangar rentals for aviators and corporate jets, general aviation provides more than $434,890 of annual revenue to the airport, or about 15 percent of total revenue. That doesn't include revenue from fuel. Then there are pilots who work as private pilots or flight teachers.

Essentially, there are people whose entire social and professional lives revolve around the airport.

Fostering relationships

The airport sits on nearly 600 acres, from which there are 146 take-offs and landings daily, but just 5 percent of them are commercial. And, even with 135 planes based at the airport, there are hundreds more people for whom the airport is much more than a parking lot. It is a community.

Just as some people in Columbus donated to Hurricane Katrina relief through their churches, jobs and neighborhood groups, the general aviation community came together to help out. Of course, they had the means to fly a private jet filled with goods for donation to the Biloxi, Miss., aviation community.

But actions like this say more about this community's spirit than its bankroll, said Bill Tebo, owner and president of The Flying Club of Columbus.

"You might be hanging out with lawyers and doctors just as well as you might be talking with someone in hard labor or air conditioning services or privates from the military," he said. "We've tried to foster a relationship among pilots where there's no real social line."

This is why he created the club in February 2004. Members pay a $50 monthly fee to rent an airplane and pay per usage.

But the same dynamic exists among plane owners, said Greg Russell, general manager of CSG Aviation Services. CSG is the fixed base operator at the airport, providing flight classes, fuel and maintenance services for the airport.

The first Thursday of every month, there is an evening barbecue outside the hangars. Fifty or more people usually attend.

Another favorite pastime of local pilots is flying to other regional airports for lunch for what is known as "the $100 hamburger," because of the cost of fuel and landing fees for such a trip.

Sharing concerns

Russell said the passion from the fun of flying is also what makes activities at the airport more than a hobby.

"The one thing people think is that the airport is a lot of rich people playing with toys," he said.

Because commercial aviation and other operations account for the majority of revenues, some pilots feel they are not always heard by the airport commission. Among them, George Wade said the relationship between himself and the commission has been rocky.

"We are the bread and butter here," Wade said. He would like to see the commission try to develop more private or chartered air traffic. For example, he said a restaurant that would bring other pilots into the airport could produce more revenue.

However, Wade realizes that general aviation does not produce the majority of revenue. And more than half of daily airport traffic already does come from out of town.

Wade feels the commission has recently been better about hearing the general aviation community's concerns.

That's at least partially because it has a representative who is the community's advocate at commission meetings.

Sherry Goodrum has been the commission representative for the local Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association for more than a year. A partner at the Columbus law firm Lee, Goodrum & McAllister, Goodrum has frequented the airport since 1997 when her husband, Chuck, bought a plane.

She helped pilots form the association tochange the angry-mob approach the community had formerly used to address discrepancies.

"I really wanted to try to form a group for general aviation so that when we have a problem, we're going to be a legitimate, recognized group," Goodrum said, "not just a bunch of folks that are looked at as trying to make problems."

Goodrum's approach helped break down some of the division between general aviation and the board.

This was especially useful when the Transportation Security Administration became a part of that community after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. The free-flow of guests at hangars had to be curtailed to meet new security regulations.

The relationship between TSA officers and pilots was tenuous at first, but Goodrum said the community has come to understand the necessity for security and TSA has come to embrace the airport's family feel. Some officers even began attending the monthly barbecues.

DAY AT THE AIRPORT

There's much more going on at Columbus Airport than commercial flights. In fact, ASA's four daily flights make up a miniscule amount of the daily activity.

Aircraft based on the field: 135

Single-engine planes: 90

Multi-engine planes: 42

Jets: 8

Aircraft takeoffs and landings: 146 per day

Of that number:

Local aviation: 30 percent

Transient aviation: 52 percent

Air taxi: 11 percent

Commercial: 5 percent

Military: 2 percent


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