Economy Inflight

Oct. 17, 2019
Across the country, general and business aviation airports are capitalizing on a strong American economy to grow and become the economic drivers of their region.

There’s little funny-business in the flying business right now. Passenger numbers are up and projected to continue trending high. Hub airports around the country are taking advantage of a strong economy, undertaking projects to meet the needs of the increased passenger demand. Though the nation’s passengers and large airports are not the only ones reaping the benefits of an American economic upswing. General and business aviation airports around the country are also finding themselves in good places as economic drivers for the regions they serve – either as staples of their local economy, building on the economic base they have or working to grow into the potential that they see in themselves.

Situated between Boulder and Denver, Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC) is home to two FBOs, four flights schools, roughly 415 based aircraft and performs close to 175,000 operations a year – making it Colorado’s fourth busiest airport, according to Paul Anslow, airport manager. Anslow added that the airport’s heyday was in the late 1970s, experiencing upwards of 240,000 operations. In 2008, BJC took a hit to its operations with the recession but is now turning a corner.

“In 2008, we took a severe hit in our operations and experienced hangar vacancies, but this resurgence of growth and recovery from those economic issues really kind of started in about 2012. We started recovering and then in 2016 and 2017, we really started focusing on getting some businesses out here, developing some land we have available and it's been taking off The keystone to that was the opening of a second FBO. We've had only one FBO for years and so our prices were slightly higher than they probably could have been,” described Anslow.

With its location between the Boulder and Denver, Todd Anderson, senior VP of real estate and development for Sheltair, said it only made sense to open an FBO and take advantage of BJC’s position between the two business districts.

“It will be a brand-new state-of-the-art FBO complex with amenities that will anticipate the needs of the aviation customer arriving to benefit the region's economy. When people come into the airport, their first impression is going to literally be a red carpet that introduces them to a Sheltair FBO terminal facility that underscores our commitment to service,” Anderson said, describing the future Sheltair FBO.

“We know that often people arrive and they want to rent cars or they are looking to book hotels. We're going to be able to provide all those kinds of concierge services. When they go through our building, their initial impression of the region will be how our facility, its amenities and the professionals there to greet them have made their arrival special.

We're going to be an important portal for business leaders and people coming into the community who will often be arriving to create additional economic development and tourism. In addition, we will also have a flight school and sport team charters that will add to the overall positive economic activity generated by the airport and our new facility. In all, we are enormously excited to play a role in strengthening the future of Jefferson County."

Sheltair isn’t the only company taking notice of BJC’s prime location. Described as the “lifeblood of the region,” BJC is home to over 40 businesses – four of them Fortune 500 – and over 400 jobs directly on the airport, with Leprino Foods, Ball Corporation and Mountain Aviation as three of BJC’s largest tenants, said Anslow.

“The development and the opportunity are obviously the biggest driver. We're at 100 percent capacity on every building we have on the airport. Not a single hangar is empty. Not a single office is empty, so we have to develop and build to meet that demand. I think that our number one thing is to have that ability to meet the demand for space for office, for hangars, and as we move forward, that's going to be our focus,” Anslow said.

The success and growth that BJC has seen after weathering the 2008 recession has nearly filled the airport’s northside, where the majority of their tenants are, with Sheltair’s soon-to-be FBO taking up the last remaining acreage. BJC is now looking to begin developing its south side to meet demand.

“Soon, we’ll be releasing our first request for proposal on 30 acres on what we call the south side development area. The only tenant we have on the south side is Pilatus Aircraft and they built a 150,000 square foot completion facility over there. But that RFP will be for new development adjacent to Pilatus on the south side. Once we get that underway, probably in the next three to five years, then we're going to open up an additional 50 to 70 acres,” described Anslow.

Anslow added that he envisions there will be a total of four phases of development on the south side to get all of the airports 170 acres of land completed.

Though it isn’t only the region’s and airport’s businesses that BJC is catering to with their developments. The airport experiences a number of people flying in with leisure on their mind.

“If you fly into here, you're an hour and a half away from the ski slopes,” said Anslow. “We're busy pretty much year-round. It used to be, in the past, you would notice a marked increase on like a Thursday, Friday and then a departure on a Sunday, Monday, especially during the winter months. But not anymore because there's so many activities, hiking, biking and all these other activities up in the mountains. You'll see a little bit tick up in the winter during ski season. You'll also see some flight increases during University of Colorado football games. People will come in and alumni will come in because it's an easy commute from here up to Boulder to get to those games.”

The airport’s traffic, Anslow estimated, is made up of 30 percent corporate flyers, 40 percent flight schools, then 30 percent transient with military making up the remainder. Anslow added that the addition of a second FBO was top of flyer’s list, and with the addition of Sheltair, buzz about the airport has already begun to grow.

“By getting that second FBO, we've gotten competition and watching them build has spurred other people to come out and say, ‘Hey, what do you have available out there?’ We've got 170 acres of aviation land to develop and 450 acres of commercial and industrial land that we can develop.”

Sheltair’s facility at BJC is expected to open early third quarter 2020. 

“It’s going to be a brand-new state of the art FBO complex. When people come into the airport, their first impression is going to be our front door and that is the Sheltair FBO Terminal facility,” Anderson said, describing the future Sheltair FBO. “A lot of times people come in and they want to rent cars, they're looking to book hotels. We're going to be able to provide all those concierge type services. When they go through our building, their last impression is going to be through our Sheltair facility. We're going to be the front door for the business leaders, people coming into the community that are going to also create additional economic development and tourism. We have flight school's going on, we have sport team charters that will all occur, which all adds to the overall economic impact to the region BJC serves.”

Making It in Mesa

When giving the general and business aviation market a broad look, Jason Fuehne, senior project manager for consulting firm Burns & McDonnell, said there are a couple of strong trends influencing airports – community perception and the passenger and tenant experience.

“One of the things that we're really seeing is the rise of secondary community GA airports, because if those airports can offer commercial flights to larger destinations or connecting destinations, the community has really started taking advantage of those things. We're seeing load factors increase at a lot of our GA airports, especially those with essential air service and commercial flights. It’s one of those things where if it's convenient, people are going to use it. The ability to cut out the whole driving three hours to an airport if they don't have to, aspect of travel,” said Fuehne.

“We're also seeing a lot of emphasis on the traveler's experience and the tenant experience, as well,” Fuehne continued. “‘What can you do for me, as a passenger or as a tenant at the airport?’ From a passenger standpoint, it's ‘do you have restrooms after I go through security or do I have to go back out through security?’ Things like that. And then for a tenant, it's ‘is there going to be somebody manning fueling operations 24/7? Is there somebody I can get a hold of 24/7?’ It’s bringing airport management and bringing the ability to serve all of your passenger and tenants' needs.”

At Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, Arizona, asking tenants how the airport could best serve them was the first mission that Lynn Spencer, airport economic development program manager, had when she joined the airport staff two years ago. 

“I interviewed the companies to find out what was here, what was missing, and started building momentum for what was happening here by spreading the word about the different assets and kinds of business we have. Our businesses include aeronautical aviation flight schools, helicopter manufacturers and general aviation users. I interviewed pilots and employees of the airport companies to find out more about their supply chain, their customers and who should be here,” Spencer recounted. 

With 300,000 operations a year – a number that airport director Corinne Nystrom expects to “easily exceed” in 2019 – MSC is among one of the busiest general aviation airports in the United States. On the airport, there are over 100 businesses with over 1,400 employed at MSC. In addition, Boeing has a through-the-fence agreement with MSC and an adjacent plant where they build their Apache helicopters, as well as perform drone research and development, said Nystrom. 

“We just had an economic impact study done. And it showed that our annual benefit, direct and indirect, is $811 million annually. That does not include Boeing, who has a through-the-fence agreement with us. When you include Boeing's economic impact, the airport has a $6 billion annual economic value and benefit to our region,” said Spencer.

“Right now, the economy is very strong. Arizona was late to get into the last recession, and we were late coming out of it. But the economy here is very robust and the airport's economy is doing extremely well,” Nystrom added.

Of the companies that do business at the airport, Nystrom said that MD Helicopters, a helicopter manufacturer that evolved from a company started by Howard Hughes, and CAE Oxford Aviation Academy (CAE) are the largest tenants.

“Falcon Field is CAE’s U.S. location. They contract with airlines, or in some cases with governments, to train pilots from the ground up, and train them specifically to go to work in the right seat of a commercial airline,” said Nystrom. “We also have over 750 aircraft based here and a very large recreational general aviation population here, in addition to the hundred plus businesses that we have. So, we have a lot of diversity here. You can come to Falcon Field and have anything done to your aircraft, whether it's avionics, or engine work, or painting. It's one-stop shopping here at Falcon Field.”

MSC’s growth was no accident. It has become an economic driver for the region through its own initiatives and tactical planning, all things that Fuehne says airports looking for their own growth should be doing.

“One of the things that we've noticed is that there is a distinct direction to plan out what the next 10 to 20 years look like at an airport. And it's not just master planning or airport layout. It's, ‘What do my facilities look like in 20 years? What am I going to have to do to maintain that capital improvement program? What's my biggest bang for my buck when I go and do that?’ Am I going to be getting a lot of facilities, inheriting them from folks that either aren't going to be there anymore, or won’t pay their leases? Or, if it's old military facilities or something similar, how can I best utilize that to again serve my tenants and give them more space, give them nicer space? And what's my plans going forward to do that? How am I going to be self sufficient and make my own money as an airport? That really is what it comes down to,” explained Fuehne. 

For MSC, the airport has leveraged the benefits of a strong economy and Arizona’s opportune climate for aeronautics along with their many initiatives and programs. One of the more successful initiatives the airport started came off of the back of the interviews Spencer held with the airport’s tenants.

For MSC, the airport has leveraged the benefits of a strong economy and Arizona’s climate for aeronautics along with their many initiatives and programs. One of the more successful initiatives the airport started came from the interviews Spencer held with the airport’s tenants.

“From those conversations, we partnered with a couple of our companies who said, ‘One of the most effective ways to use a trade show are the gatherings.’ So, we launched the Arizona Helicopter Reception at the HAI Helio-Expo helicopter trade show,” Spencer said. “The first year we had 100 attendees. Last year was our second year – we had 240. This year the show will be in California, and our sponsors are anticipating 300 to 400 attendees. What's great about it is that it's not falling just on us to advertise the airport. We're leveraging our companies. That event, for example, is sponsored by six, or seven, or eight different companies that want to attract their customers and supply chain to an event. We're able to get in front of them and promote the airport. A lot of our business prospecting is generated from those trade shows.”

Another event the airport launched last year is the State of Falcon luncheon, an opportunity to connect with real estate developers, real estate brokers and investors.

“We invited them to a luncheon in a hangar and had discussion panels of our businesses about what infrastructure was needed at the airport. The lunch was a great opportunity for our companies to explain to our developer and investor community that there is growth potential here from the existing companies, not to mention the new ones coming from outside,” Spencer described.

And grow is just what the airport is doing. A new 400,000 square-foot hangar complex is currently being constructed by Davcon/Mesa Hangars at MSC, targeting primarily mid-size to large companies, with most of the new hangars ranging from 6,000 to 22,000 square feet – space that MSC needs as it continues to attract new businesses.

“Now that the economy is better, we are starting to see more activity in our general aviation users. They're starting to come back. You're starting to see more of our experimental aircraft companies, people that restore those, fix them up, companies that are certifying and getting FAA certifications on airworthiness,” said Spencer. “Another market we're starting to see expand, as demonstrated by our increase in jet fuel, is the mid-size corporate jets. We continue to engage and promote expansion in the helicopter industry, maintenance and repair operations, as well as new aviation and aerospace industries such as drone development research and other technologies.

The Clarksville Climb

Far away from the deserts of Arizona, and just a ten minute flight from the Nashville International Airport, is Clarksville, Tennessee and the Clarksville Regional Airport (CKV). The airport sees an average of 80 flights a day, making for roughly 29,200 operations a year. And while those may numbers may be a smaller than MSC’s, CKV’s aspirations are just as high and the airport sees in itself the potential to grow into a business hub.

Josh Vaughn, CKV’s business development manager, is leading the growth.

“The economy here is just exploding. We're an overflow of Nashville whose economy has quadrupled in size and economy over the past 10 years. We're getting the overflow from that because it's so much less expensive to develop here. We're trying to capitalize on that,” said Vaughn. “ just announced that Clarksville Tennessee is the best place to live in America and somewhere out there is a company looking to build or expand and CKV is exactly what they’ve been looking for.”

For airports in CKV’s shoes, small but poised to grow, Fuehne has advice.

“You need to kind of do an analysis of your region and your place in life. If you know exactly that you've got a lot of business growth and you've got a lot of population growth in your area, you should really start saying, ‘Okay, first and foremost, let's get out in the community, make sure everybody knows we're here. Make sure everybody understands what we can do and we can provide.’ Once you get to that point, if you have the ability to plan, put together a document that shows potential tenants, potential customers, what we have. What do we have in terms of utilities? What do we have in terms of land that you can use to develop on the airfield? Or in terms of facilities, what do we have that you can service your passengers? Have a document at the ready to show that you can be that kind of a partner for them to help create some economic diversity in the community,” Fuehne illustrated.

Vaughn’s plans for CKV run the gamut from transforming the airport landscape and attracting new tenants, to community-focused events. In the immediate, those community-inspired events are the airport’s most tangible and proving to be most crucial in reshaping CKV’s image.

“We're hosting our third annual Wags and Wings Family Fun and Oktoberfest in September. It’s shaping up to be the biggest one so far, if this year’s show is as successful as we hope it will be next year we're going to bring in a company to basically give us a turnkey air show,” Vaughn said. “We've got a ton of positive feedback of all the activity that we've been generating here because for a long time this airfield was sort of going downhill. About 10 years ago is when it kind of made that turnaround. Our airport manager, John Patterson, does an exceptional job. He's a great airport manager and really breathed new life into Outlaw Field. We have people stop in all the time and they're like, ‘I can't believe the turnaround at this place. I was here 10 years ago and there was one dusty old Cessna parked out on the tarmac and that was it.’ Now it's not uncommon to have six jets parked out front.”

Vaughn has also initiated Chamber afterhours meetings, Clarksville Young Professionals mingles, Clarksville Local small business meetings, Leadership Clarksville Tours and a concert right in the terminal by the Gateway Chamber Orchestra.

These community focused events are, as Fuehne said, a crucial first step to getting an airport where they ultimately want to be.

“Really make sure that you're influencing what the community knows about you. I can't tell you how many times our clients say they were out in the community and someone said ‘We have an airport?’. And, it's like, well, how do you overcome that? What do you have to do to overcome that? It’s not really a stigma but just a lack of knowledge of what the airport should provide,” said Fuehne.

And ultimately, CKV’s goals are to utilize their land – both 55 acres at the south end of CKV that has taxiway access and is “prime for development,” Vaughn said – and a large piece of land with a significant hill that, Vaughan(spelling) said, would cost too much to level off, so the airports sees its future as either farm land or a solar farm.

However, Vaughn’s dream for the airport is bigger.

“My goal is to land a large transportation, logistics and cargo company. At the moment we can't support any large passenger airplanes. We just don't have the space to extend our runway so we're kind of limited in what we can support here. I think what would be ideal is smaller cargo caravan style airplanes. I'd love to see cargo flights coming and going every day. There’s certainly a huge earning potential here for any transportations company looking to ship goods in and around middle Tennessee. I think that's what makes the most sense for where we are right now,” described Vaughn.

Currently for their efforts, CKV has secured business from Austin Peay State University, who is starting a rotary wings flight program, and have leased out half of CKV’s largest hangar for teaching students to work on the helicopters and are expecting to house more helicopters at CKV within the coming year. And a new hangar that CKV is currently constructing is attracting attention, Vaughn said, from Nashville based charter company JetRight – who Vaughn said is considering basing some of their aircraft at CKV.

And to help find a developer for their land, CKV has teamed up with the Tennessee Economic Development Council to produce a drone-shot video of the land to use in presentations to prospective clients. Steps that Fuehne said are critical to an airport’s success.

“Plan as much as you can reasonably plan to go forward. Make sure that you are partners with your community, with the FAA, with your economic development groups in town. Understand what they see coming on the horizon, and what those things are. So that, as an airport, the FBO, you can kind of react and help them plan going forward. You want the airport to be an economic driver for your region, for your city, for your community. I think it's just the constant planning to move forward from that route. Not everything works out the way you plan. Sometimes you'll see your plan 10 years ago and be like, ‘Ah. Not sure what we were thinking.’ But, at the same time, you made the effort, and you geared your resources toward that. But at the end of the day, it's better to have something rather than nothing. If you have nothing, you don't have the opportunity to bring in the Amazons, the DHL, the FedEx's. You're not going to have that opportunity, so you have to plan,” said Fuehne.