Easterwood Airport Set for Big Upgrades After Outsourcing Deal

May 04--Texas A&M's Easterwood Airport is getting a multimillion-dollar makeover.

The latest outsourcing initiative championed by A&M System Chancellor John Sharp is the university-owned airport. A&M announced late last week that Bryan-College Station-based Astin Limited will manage all operations and services starting June 1.

"[Chancellor Sharp] felt like there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential to modernize the airport," said Phillip Ray, chief business development officer for the A&M University System. "That's why we did it, to enhance the services to the private hobbyist pilot as well as for the commercial side."

Ray said the purpose of the airport outsourcing was different from the Compass Group deal, which in 2012 offloaded university dining, maintenance, landscaping and custodial services. System leadership sees Easterwood as the first impression visitors have of the Brazos valley, Ray said, and it should look as good as the rest of A&M. He said the cost and revenue from privatizing the airport, which has traditionally operated with a self-sustaining budget, would be net neutral to the university.

"The difference from our previous outsourcing initiatives is the funding within Easterwood airport statutorily has to stay within Easterwood airport," Ray said. "These are not savings that will be taken to support some other activity."

An advisory committee recommended the privatization about a year ago to then-university President R. Bowen Loftin. However, the proposal was mired in concerns about cost increases for fliers, what would happen to past and future federal grants to A&M if the management was privatized, and one of the two airlines that service the area, American Airlines, threatened to cut service if its operating costs went up due to outsourcing.

Proponents say those concerns have been alleviated. American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said there are no service changes planned for Easterwood but that the company continuously evaluates the performance of all of its markets. Ray said the grant funding, the main source of money for infrastructure improvements, will not be affected by the privatization.

"We did our due diligence. We've confirmed and verified no grants are at risk past or present or future and we are fully compliant with FAA regulations," Ray said.

According to the contract, provided by the A&M system, the university will retain control of all improvements and personal property. The 10-year contract has two five-year extension options for Astin Limited.

The company, in the contract, pledged $7 million in capital improvements and $600,000 in marketing.

Astin Limited CEO John Clanton, a prominent Bryan businessman, is the former founder and former CEO of Trajen FBOs, a private company that managed fixed-base operator services at 21 airports in 11 states until it was sold in 2006 to Atlantic Aviation for $338 million.

More passengers in and out of Easterwood equals more profit, and Clanton's first order of business is an aesthetic overhaul. The mismatched signage, colors patterns and design, rusted handrails, the mostly-vacated bar area and empty display cases are getting renovated or replaced.

Cleaning up crumbling infrastructure will begin as soon as possible after the June takeover, Clanton said. The interior and exterior of the airport will be redesigned to be thoughtful and appealing for customers. The redesign will take about six to nine months to develop, Clanton said, and another six to 12 months to execute.

The interior of the airport needs to reflect A&M's academic and athletic success, Clanton said, adding that he wants to make a good first impression on out-of-state CEOs and prospective students, faculty or blue-chip athletes.

The food service within the airport will likely be subcontracted, Clanton said, but he did not yet have a timeline for when that would happen.

"We believe there is a sufficient demand for a seasoned professional food operator here," Clanton said. "With as many chef-owned restaurants that exist in our community ... we can find someone who can do that well and at a level that represents the quality of what's happening in our community and our university."

For the private planes, Clanton has committed to building a 10,000-square-foot common hangar and an undetermined number of private T-hangars.

What's not changing is the staff. Similar to the system's other outsourcing pushes, Astin Limited is required to offer jobs with equal pay and similar benefits to all of the airport's approximately 20 employees. Clanton added that the ticket prices for fliers and the costs for the airlines would remain the same.

The tallest task will be to convince patrons to fly out of Easterwood rather than Houston or Austin, which typically have lower prices and offer more flights from more airlines. Clanton believes that with modernized amenities and aesthetics, the growing population of the Brazos Valley will choose Easterwood. He said a portion of the area demographic, be that students, faculty or CEOs, will use the airport because of its location and convenience.

"The direction of the airport is upward," Clanton said. "We're investing our own dollars with an anticipation that the activity level is going to grow and that's a reflection of the growth of our community in general."

Copyright 2014 - The Eagle, Bryan, Texas