Small Airports: Crimped by Costs and Pinched by Prosperity by Michael Marotta

[This story originally appeared in the June/July 98 issue of GREAT LAKES PILOTS NEWS. $12 per year at 1219 Van Dusen Road, Ann Arbor Michigan 48103] Small airports are disappearing despite the fact that they usually enjoy heavy use. It takes hard work and ingenuity to walk the thin line between mounting costs and increased demand.

A small airport’s primary source of income is usually from hangar rentals. No matter what the mix, whether large hangars or small, open apron space, or covered parking, all are different classes of the same basic service. In fact, the passenger terminals at commercial airports are just another kind of apron space. Therefore, for any airport, the hangar rentals provide a planned income from which basic operating costs are paid.

Furthermore, an airport is different from most businesses because it requires so much more land. As a result, many small airports get crowded out by residential expansion or else the property becomes more valuable as undeveloped industrial land than it is as an airfield. Eventually, someone makes the owner an offer that is too attractive to pass up and the airport land goes to other uses. On the other hand, until the owner sells it, the acreage of an airport is also a guaranteed source of pay-outs in the form of property taxes.

These parameters are among the basic facts of life at New Hudson Airport, in southwestern Oakland County, about 50 miles northwest of Detroit. Says the owner, Liz Myer-Earl, “You pay off enough of the mortgage to refinance it and build more hangars. Any money you make goes back into the airport, the roof, the field,” she says.

Arithmetic is as unforgiving on the ground as it is in the air. New Hudson Airport has 130 planes paying about $200 each for hangar space. On the other side of the ledger, the electric bill is $3500 per month in the winter. Property taxes on the 90 acres run about $50,000 per year. Four people draw wages. Trash pickups is just one of many incidental costs that must be met.

Another challenge to the existence of private airports is the age of the owner. At 36, Liz is one of the youngest. She started working at New Hudson in 1979. She became the manager in 1985 and the owner in 1994. At the same time, she has seen private fields in nearby Troy and Wixom close when the owners retired. Her neighbor to the south, Salem airport, is now a landfill.

Like most self-employed people, Liz earns a comfortable living, but puts in long, hard hours to do it. Raised on a farm, she is not afraid of a full day of continuous effort.

Her introduction to New Hudson Airport came in 1979 when she started working there as a line jockey, pumping gas. “When I offered to work for flying lessons, they said that they never had a girl working for them before and they weren’t sure how it would go, so they started me off at one day a week.” By the end of the summer, she was up to six days a week. Eventually, she earned her wings and a promotion. She became the manager and administrator in 1985. “When I worked for Jan Mueller, he gave me free rein, so it was easy to stay on and take over the operation.”

While working at New Hudson part time, Liz Myer-Earl majored in airport management, first at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, then finishing at Eastern Michigan in Yspilanti. “Most of what is taught in college is not relevant when compared to real life,” she explained. “Schools lean more toward bigger operations, the metropolitan airports, the internationals.” For the average FBO, however, life is not all aviation. “One day you are working on a plane, then next day you are laying carpet. You fix the plumbing, then you patch the roof.” Liz also plows the snow and drives the fuel truck. She is also the bookkeeper.

With only 24 hours in a day, Liz also has three fulltime employees. Manager Steve Poiner has been with her for 11 years. Liz explained, “I called one of my old instructors at Eastern Michigan University and told him that I needed a helper who was honest, alert, and flexible. He sent me Steve, and after we talked, I hired him on a 30-day probation.” That was 1987. Bob Deveraux, her mechanic has been there four years. She also has two fulltime CFIs, Matt Ellison, and Sy Levine who are joined by several part-time instructors, usually under contract.

The flight school is part of the broader mix of services that keep an airport profitable. Liz is licensed for inspection authorization under FAR 43 and does the maintenance on the planes at her airport. She manages the flight school and she has a school in airframe and powerplant maintenance.

She recently bought the property next door and she will build more hangars on that land. “An airport has somewhat of a captive market because hangar space is limited,” she said. “Success in this business is more a question of whether the pilots will patronize your other services.” Her pilot’s shop is well-stocked with new goods including head sets, log books, charts and maps, coffee cups, and teeshirts. The pilot’s shop brings in about $2500 per month in gross profits.

The sheer mobility of her clients keeps fuel rates competitive. AV 100 is $2.10 per gallon — and Liz runs the fuel truck out to the hangars for her pilots. Landing is free for general aviation because Liz figures that most pilots patronize the airport they land at. New Hudson does charge its major corporate accounts $15 when their freighters come in.

Sometimes, a little creativity goes a long way. One of her school planes needed a paintjob, and one of her client pilots works for Locktite, so she arranged to have the school plane painted with Locktite colors and logos. Therefore, 750 Bravo Golf is nicknamed “Billboard Golf.”

Her other training plane, a Cherokee, just suffered an accident when a student let a crosswind landing get the better of him. The non-fatal occurance will probably cost the plane and an additional $2000 in premiums at renewal time. Fortunately, the president of the insurance company learned to fly at New Hudson. “I have had one or two students over the years grounded by the insurer as unsafe. You have to go with the insurance company,” says Liz.

New Hudson airport is currently working with the Michigan Aeronautics Commission of the M-DOT to get an FAA grant to widen and resurface the runway. The airport is defined as a “reliever” for Detroit Metro. This designation came from the state and it enabled Liz Myer-Earl to apply to the FAA for the grant. So far, however, there has been no action from the federal government.

Getting along with the neighors is always important for an airport. Located in southwestern Oakland County, Detroit’s hottest new suburbia, New Hudson has lots of neighbors.

“For most people, an airport is a nuisance,” she says, “so we push airplane rides.” With the sign always out, people driving past the airport are offered the chance to see their homes from the sky. From April through October, New Hudson sells about 10 rides per week. This promotion is especially enticing in the Fall because of Michigan’s spectacular autum colors. The airplane rides open the way for the neighors to get introduced to general aviation. “Every now and then,” Liz said, “someone will come back and take a lesson.”

Aircraft noise is a problem for any community near an airport. Most neighbors accept the occasional late night drone of a single engine plane. The constant take offs and landings on the week ends are usually not a serious problem. However, there are always exceptions. “We had a gal working here who did not know everything about airplanes,” Liz said. “And we got a call and they asked if they could bring in a Citation and the gal said ‘Sure, come on in!’ After they left I explained to her what a Citation is.”

Like any good home-away-from-home, New Hudson keeps a light in the window for travelers. A photocell turns the runway lights on at night, instead of having them keyed to the aircraft radios. Visual glideslopes (3-bar VASIs) are available to help pilots clear the trees. The 3100-foot runway easily accommodates turbines. Liz says, “I live across the street. I can see a stranger land. After hours, I’ll walk across or drive over.”

Among the capital investments that keep New Hudson open is a new, automatic fueling station. The pilot runs his credit card through the machine, just like at an automobile gas station. This will reduce or eliminate the need for a line jockey to fill the wings. However, it also closes the door on one opportunity for the next generation of airport owners bceause, after all, Liz herself started out pumping gas at New Hudson.

Michael E. Marotta
Technical Writer