Oct. 13--Fewer planes are taking off at municipal and county airports these days, thanks to the long economic downturn and high aviation fuel prices.
But small businesses such as T-shirt printers, breweries, car dealers and equipment renovators are taking off there, and bolstering the bottom line. Other small airports have discounted fuel, or are in talks with educational facilities about hosting air traffic control classes.
"The trend nationally is down for recreational flying," said Stephen Williams, a pilot and director of airports for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which runs Cape May County and Millville municipal airports. "New pilot starts, and the health of flight schools, are down because of the cost of fuel and ownership. My own flight activity is down as a recreational flyer."
With fewer people becoming pilots, the aging of existing pilots and many grounded planes for sale, airports just don't have as much traditional, aviation-related business. They have had to adapt to the new reality by being flexible and open to new ways of funding operations.
At both DRBA airports in the region, land and building leases are up due to local demand for small business work space, Williams said.
Cape May Brewing Co. has flourished since 2011 at Cape May Airport. It started with one employee, produced 60 barrels of beer a year (a barrel is 31 gallons) and was open four hours a week for tours. This year it has 10 year-round employees, produces 1,500 barrels of beer and is open six days a week and hosting 500 to 1,000 people a day, said co-owner Ryan Krill, 31. He started the business with his father, Bob Krill, of Chadds Ford, Pa., and college friend Chris Henke, of Avalon.
The brewery grew from 1,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet in 2012, and 7,500 square feet this year, and Ryan Krill, of Avalon. It expects to increase production to 2,500 barrels next year.
Another local microbrewery, Glasstown Brewing Co., will open soon at Millville Airport, said DRBA spokesman James Salmon. It's co-owned by general contractor Justin Arenberg and environmental consultant Paul Simmons, both of Millville.
Both airfields also have popular museums attached to them, which bring in large numbers of visitors: The Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum and the Millville Army Airfield Museum.
Becoming a private pilot is a big committment, and requires an outlay of $8,000 to $10,000 and many hours of flight time, said Dave Dempsey, owner of Aerial Skyventures flight school, based at Woodbine Municipal Airport.
Then there's the cost every time a pilot goes up.
"A general aviation airplane will burn 10 to 15 gallons an hour," said Jeff Doran, of Woodbine, a longtime pilot and retired police officer who flies himself to jobs throughout the Northeast for an emergency communications firm. "That's $60 to $100 per hour, just to start the engine," with aviation fuel at more than $6 per gallon.
After falling in the midst of the recession, land and building lease revenue had rebounded in Millville by three years ago, helped by the 2010 addition of the Boeing Chinook CH-47 helicopter modification center, according to DRBA reports. The center modifies new helicopters for the Army, which recently extended its contract through April 2014, according to Robert Algarotti of Boeing.
Cape May Airport's lease income fell similarly, but by 2011 had surpassed 2007 figures, the DRBA reports show.
At the same time, the DRBA estimates landings and takeoffs have fallen from a high of about 50,000 per year at each airport before the recession, to about 35,000 this year, Williams said. (General aviation airports don't have towers so don't keep exact records, but must estimate activity.)
Jet use hasn't decreased as much as regular small plane use, said Clarence Crawley of FlightLevel Cape May, LLC, the independent fixed base operator at Cape May Airport. That may indicate the highest-income flyers are less affected by the downturn than others. FlightLevel has been the operator there since May, but Crawley has worked for two other operators at the airport going back to pre-recession years, he said.
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