The State of GA

June 4, 2014
Former Long Beach Airport Director Mario Rodriguez shares his thoughts on the state of general aviation today

It's a long way from California to Indiana, and well, not just in distance, but in weather patterns too. Mario Rodriguez has left the coastal city of Long Beach and moved to the Midwest. He's bracing for snowy winters, but also a new, exciting challenge as executive director of the Indianapolis Airport Authority (IAA).

He has served as executive director at Long Beach Airport, one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world, since 2009, and the first week in June began his tenure with IAA, the state's largest airport system. He was approached by IAA for the job and says much like LGB, Indianapolis boasts high-quality professionals.

The Indianapolis International Airport (IND) consistently ranks as the No.1 airport in America by J.D. Power and Associates. "It's wonderful," he says. "I'm going from one award-winning airport to another." LGB recently was bestowed the honor of one of the top 10 most beautiful airports in the world by the BBC, and the only one recognized from the United States.

With small children, Rodriguez says the fantastic school system and desired location in the country to raise children has been a positive factor in this move. "I guess they call it 'Hoosier Hospitality' and it's true; there are very, very nice people in Indianapolis," he adds.

Moving the conversation to business, Rodriguez says the balance between commercial and general aviation (GA) has been important at Long Beach. "It's part of having a very vibrant system," he explains of the airport's general aviation sector. "We have everything from manufacturing to air carriers and general aviation categories such as corporate jets, light training, to private aircraft."

This industry veteran also notes general aviation is a sector that the rest of the industry depends on and will continue to in the coming years as more Baby Boomer pilots retire, and the country's general population and economy grow.  Airport Business recently talked to Rodriguez right before his transition to Indianapolis, and asked his opinion on the state of general aviation today.

What are the top issues with GA airports?

What was a very vibrant GA contingency in most airports is dwindling over time. It has come about because of the economics of general aviation; a lot of people have been priced out of it. It just costs too much to own and operate an aircraft. It's the opposite of what's happening with electric cars. At first, they were very expensive, now they're kind of affordable and soon the will be very affordable. General aviation has gone the other way. It's reached the point where only the very wealthy can afford an aircraft for a hobby.

General aviation also is an entity that doesn't generate a lot of aviation-related money, but is extremely important to feed the commercial aviation side eventually. There are 500 commercial airports around the United States, but about 20,000 total airports that are part of the national transportation infrastructure and allow things to move around the country. Long Beach is unique in its position; you don't see a lot of airports that have both. Our time is strictly controlled so there are windows of opportunity for GA flights to fly out very easily, or land without the stress of a jet coming in right behind them.

The airport industry is a very mature system and these GA airports are integral in the continuation of it. Once you run out of people to actually fly the planes, though, we're in trouble. In the future we're going to have a lot of pilots retiring and if we don't keep up with the replacement cycle, it will dissolve. That will affect everyone, from those that run the aircraft to mechanics and flight crews. They all usually start working on GA aircraft and move up. Even people that work as airline executives or run airports start their careers in GA airports. They are important to the entire industry.

How can the GA airports continue to thrive?

Appreciate what we have. If you are a corporation working on a big business deal and need to get a client to headquarters, you can put them on an airplane and have them across the country in a matter of hours. You can't do that in other countries. We take a lot of this for granted, and the resources for these needs originate in those general aviation airports. They are training pilots to get in the cockpit, fly and keep us safe.  

I think GA airports will keep going and it's the economics around them will get a little better. There is a decline in general aviation for the middle class and the aircraft flying around, but that pilot training is increasing. Expansion and capacity expansion in the airport industry are directly proportional to the expansion of the population and the economy. The economy is not stagnant, nor is the population. Pilots are retiring, and they need to be replaced through training and bringing them up through the reins.

Discuss the need of balancing aviation activity with non-aeronautical revenue?

That's getting more and more important. At GA airports, for the most part, it's a struggle to make ends meet. The more non-aviation revenue that comes in, the better. Aviation is also more cyclical than any other part of the economy, so the name of the game is diversity. If you diversify your revenue streams, you're in much better shape to survive any sort of economic downturn without getting completely clobbered.

How do you feel the GA airports can mix a business mindset with creativity?

I think they're mutually inclusive; they're not mutually exclusive! You have to be creative and you have to run things in a business-like fashion. The United States is an oddball in this respect. Most airports in the world are privately run. Why? They generate positive cash flow. It will take time for the U.S. to actually start privatizing airports, but I believe that is the final direction. I'm not saying airports aren't run well: they are, but for the most part run like private sector entities. With everything that resides in the public sector, you're limited in what you streamline.

It takes all flavors and colors, but if you look at the structure of an airport, it still has to run efficiently. Most of the cost is passed on due to efficiency or inefficiency, to the airlines, the users and so forth. The U.S. has tried privatization a couple times and it really hasn't caught on yet because the airports are normally run pretty well.

How can GA airports better communicate their value to their communities?

This is one of the most important things GA airports can do because communities for the most part don't understand the value. They just don't. It's very complicated to explain the value of an air carrier to Chicago, but even more complicated to explain the value of general aviation airports. If you explain it correctly, most people get it, but there are wonderful examples of cities that have gone under because the airport really missed steps along the way. Most people will say: "Not in our backyard." And you're thinking: "You don't want economic impact in your backyard? You don't want jobs in your backyard?"

The economic impact is a ripple effect. The majority of communities with airports are better off financially than those without airports. In the last year, 3/4 billion passengers, and millions and millions of metric tons of cargo were moved throughout the country. All of that happens because of the airports, even if it's a GA airport. It is a very intricate network making the United States what it is.

The prime example of this is what happened after 9/11. Air transportation went down completely. Companies couldn't get their people from Point A to Point B. Pilot training stopped. It was a major ripple effect in the economy, like saying we're going to shut down the Interstate Highway system. It's exactly the same thing. China, which is developing as a country, is copying the United States' air transportation system. I've met with several Chinese delegations about this. We don't think about it deeply because we don't really appreciate what we have.

What do GA airports need to do in terms of lobbying for legislation?

Their role is extremely important. If you look at the GA airports as individual economic impact centers, they're not big. But, if you loop them all together, they mean something. Anything policy-wise which is negative toward GA airports has a huge economic impact nationwide on all air traffic. I would say speaking with one strong voice is extremely important. There are wonderful organizations to be involved in which lobby for positive change at the Washington D.C. level.