Reliever Airports Looking For Relief

Franco Fiorillo wants to get his rural Lakeville airport on the map.

Single-engine planes dot the dandelion-covered field in front of the tiny terminal, and a steady stream of Cessnas take off and land on the small runway. It's a busy weekday morning at Airlake Airport, but Fiorillo thinks it could be a whole lot busier.

He wants to build an executive hangar for corporate clients, extend the runway and construct smaller rental hangars on the far end of the property to boost business.

"Right now we're the orphan, the dying orphan," said Fiorillo, who runs Airlake's Aircraft Resource Center with his son Tony. The center provides aviation fuel, flight training, maintenance and aircraft sales.

"The (improvements) would give us that push to be successful. We're trying to turn this around, to get this airport to stand on its own," he said. "It's the investment that's needed."

And that's the rub: the money that's required to make it happen.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission credits its six so-called reliever airports with infusing the Twin Cities economy with $1.4 billion annually. But the small airports collectively make little if any money themselves, and the MAC, which actually owns and governs the airports, appears to be tiring of subsidizing them.

The future of the airports, which deflect small airplane traffic away from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, has been under review for months. A MAC task force charged with formulating new policy for the system could reshape how the airports are run and make them financially independent.

"We've known the MAC is trying to cut the ties between the big and smaller airports," said Jacob Hedberg, a line worker at Airlake, the system's second-smallest airport.

The metro area's six-airport reliever system is one of the nation's largest. In 2004, planes took off and landed at them more than 628,000 times compared to 513,000 times at the international airport. Hobby pilots and corporate jets are the airports' main users, along with flight students and instructors.

In 2004, operations at the reliever airport system ran a deficit of more than $800,000. But because of recent user fee increases, this year is the first that those total costs are not in the red at least so far.

Although some airports, such as Airlake and Lake Elmo, lose money, others are making enough to cover their losses. But the MAC pays most capital costs, and spends $6 million to $11 million annually depending on who's counting on the airports.

That may be too much for the agency's commissioners.

The task force's recommendations for how to make all the airports pay for themselves are expected by year's end.

Nothing is off the table including the eventual closing of one or more of the lesser-performing airports, said MAC commissioner Jack Lanners, who's leading the task force.

"In a nutshell, this task force came just in time. While some aspects of the reliever airport system are first-class and state-of-the-art, others are quite neglected," he said. "The system is in desperate need of review, not only for its viability but for its long-term operations."

In a memo to commissioners this summer, Lanners identified three airports Flying Cloud, St. Paul Downtown and Anoka County/Blaine as the future of corporate jet relief.

"(These) are the airports that will, logically, consume our time and attention and the bulk of our expenditures for the foreseeable future," he wrote.

The airports in Crystal, Lake Elmo and Lakeville are to be watched and evaluated.

Pilots and airport personnel want to keep using all of the airports.

Although the airport operators doubt the task force will recommend closing any of the facilities, they say the MAC's steep rent hikes and fee increases, which took effect in January, threaten to put them out of business.

"You can't get blood out of a turnip. There gets to be a point where you just can't make it anymore," said Tim Ashenfelter, owner of ASI Jet Center at Flying Cloud Airport the system's busiest in Eden Prairie.

His anxiety is echoed throughout the tiny airport terminals scattered across the metro area. A flier advertising a meeting on the new MAC rates at Lake Elmo spells it out: "If you care at all about this airport or your hangar please attend!"

"Tired of the M.A.C.?" asks another posting at the rural landing strip.

Terminal operators like Ashenfelter hope the task force finds new ways of bringing in revenue and helps the airports expand, not reduce, operations. Many want runway extensions and other capital improvements to boost traffic.

"The only way we're going to grow which means more money for MAC is to improve the infrastructure," Ashenfelter said. "That would increase the airport's utilization and you'd sell more fuel, have more maintenance and rent more space."

Each reliever airport is serviced by at least one airport operator who essentially runs the show. The airports earn money from user fees like fuel taxes and hangar rental.

"We don't want to just pile on all the reliever costs on the tenants and operators like Ashenfelter. We're looking at other ways to cover those," Lanners said.

Developing nonaviation businesses on MAC-owned land may be one way to generate more revenue. The agency also looks to what Anoka County did with its airport in Blaine, which is undergoing a $22 million upgrade and expansion. Instead of the MAC financing the capital improvement, the county sold bonds to pay for the bulk of it.

As a rule, small regional airports like public transportation are not self sustaining, said Gary Schmidt, MAC's director of reliever airports.

"Large carriers have enough passengers coming through that the big airports can be self-sustaining," he said. "But relievers historically have been viewed as a benefit because they take operations and a different mix of traffic away from the international airport." Although the Federal Aviation Administration encourages all airports to pay for themselves, the only requirement is that the MAC as a whole is self-sustaining, Schmidt said.

But Northwest Airlines, MAC's largest tenant, has long opposed subsidies for the relievers. In a written, unsigned statement, the struggling airline said it appreciated that the task force was "taking a serious look at the how best to manage the reliever airport system.

"Northwest also appreciates the efforts of the MAC and the local Anoka County community to look at ways to creatively finance further development of the Anoka County/Blaine Airport," the statement continued. "We believe this could be a model for the entire MSP reliever system."

The airline has sued the MAC over the subsidies in the past. Northwest has said it wants the MAC to close two relievers.

"Northwest is in a position today of financial stress and looking for every penny," Schmidt said. "Its position is every penny not spent on relievers could be spent at the international airport. That's where the pressure is."

Fiorillo said he sympathizes with the MAC.

"The MAC has its hands tied with Northwest. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes it's tough," Fiorillo said.

Ashenfelter was less diplomatic. "This last go-around was primarily caused by Northwest going bankrupt and looking for money anywhere they can. Northwest has decided to pick on general aviation," he said.

"I don't think the airline understands how bad the impact would be even if just one or two airports closed," he continued. "What we do really helps their scheduling."

Although Lanners acknowledged Northwest has applied pressure, he said the task force would not be influenced by it.

"We're trying to push those motives aside while we figure this out," he said. "We're trying to determine what would be the best for Minnesota, the general public, business and aviation."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press