Santa Teresa Airport has Growing Pains

SANTA TERESA, N.M. (AP) -- Sightseeing motorists driving onto taxiways and close calls between aircraft and vehicles are just some of the growing pains at the Santa Teresa Airport.

The Dona Ana County airport's tenants say the situation is unsafe and criticize the county, which owns the airport, and airport manager Vernon Wilson for not fixing the problems.

At issue is public access for motorists to a taxiway, lack of fencing around the airport perimeter and a number of other operational and management disputes.

To make matters worse, four of the five members of the county's Airport Advisory Board have resigned in recent months, with some saying the county does not listen to their recommendations.

Joe Maxsom, a corporate pilot for Hunt Building of El Paso, Texas, who flies out of the airport, says he recently helped avoid a collision between a tractor-trailer being used in an airport construction project and a small Piper aircraft.

The trailer was moving down the taxiway as the Piper was approaching it.

''Essentially, I had to jump out in front of the truck, waving my arms, and get him to stop,'' Maxsom said.

He also said he sees motorists wander on to airport property to look at the planes several times a week.

Wilson agreed that there is a problem with vehicle access at the airport, but the county is limited in how to fix it.

''It would be a real tragedy for a guy in a Volkswagen to run into a $14 million jet,'' he said. ''We haven't had an accident. But we've had some oh-my-God-what-was-that.''

The problem is caused in large part by a taxiway that connects to the airport's main entrance road. A gate at the taxiway is closed only at night because airport tenants and students need access during the day, Wilson said.

But that means the public can drive into the area, failing to notice the warning signs or simply ignoring them.

The airport has been growing lately. About 100 planes are based at the airport, nearly double the number of a decade ago and a project is under way to lengthen the airport's runway to make it possible for DC-10s to land.

Wilson says the plans call for a redesigned entrance to the airport and a new road for tenants to access hangars so they can avoid using the taxiway.

After the work is completed in 2007 or 2008, Wilson said the taxiway will be used only by aircraft.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency has had no recent safety concerns with the airport.

But 40 tenants signed a petition asking Dona Ana County to remove Wilson from his job, saying his qualifications are better suited to some other county department. Tenants also say Wilson has failed to provide adequate security.

Wilson, a longtime pilot and flight instructor, had never managed an airport before coming to Santa Teresa Airport two years ago.

He counters that tenants' complaints about him have arisen because he has been tough on collecting rents owed the county and on enforcing safety rules.

He said he collected about $100,000 in back rent in the 2004 fiscal year and he been enforcing rules against tenants storing cars and household goods in hangars, living in hangars and parking motor homes on ramps.

Dona Ana County spokesman Jess Williams said the county has no plans to remove Wilson.

The tenants ''were used to running their own shop out there; now we have taken back control of the airport,'' he said.

Wilson said a sheriff's deputy patrols the airport, but agrees more fencing is needed, especially on the south side of the airport near the roadways. Estimates of fencing that area run up to $4 million.

The airport's troubles also have extended to those trying to help run it. Four members of the county's Airport Advisory Board have recently resigned.

Bob Worthington, an expert in aviation safety, quit because the county routinely ignored the board's advice.

''No matter what we did, nothing came to fruition within the county,'' he said.

Jorge Granados, county public works director, said county managers rewrote the airport's operating standards on safety, security and other issues on the board's recommendation.

Granados said two former board members resigned after being told to take recommendations to the airport manager and not any further.

''This board was going outside of that chain of command and it was creating problems,'' he said.