Airport report shows drop in passengers flying out of SMX

2009-11-15T22:50:00Z Airport report shows drop in passengers flying out of SMXBy Julian J. Ramos / Staff Writer / Santa Maria Times

Like many airports across the country, Santa Maria Public Airport has seen its passenger numbers tumble over the past year along with the economy.

However, General Manager Chris Hastert said the airport — also known as SMX — is hoping to capitalize when the economy rebounds.

“Even though the economy is down and has affected us,” Hastert said, “there is still an opportunity it will improve quickly.”

Hastert, who took over the top post at SMX just over a year ago, said there was a steep learning curve getting to know the community, airport leases, a runway-extension project and a business-park development.

Hastert said he now has a solid understanding of  “where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to be.”

He worked the previous 11 years at Ventura County airports, including those in Camarillo and Oxnard.

Hastert described an overview of the airport’s activities over the past year in a report to the airport district's board of directors last week.

While there have been no flight reductions, the number of passengers has fallen, he said, adding that he is optimistic other areas of the airport will grow over the next year.

From November 2007 to October 2008, 56,553 passengers flew on SkyWest Airlines (United Express). From November 2008 to October 2009, 48,117 passengers flew on the airline — a 15-percent drop.

From November 2007 to October 2008, 53,294 passengers flew on Allegiant Air. From November 2008 to October 2009, 37,570 passengers flew on the Nevada-based carrier — a 30-percent decline.

If Allegiant flights to Arizona are taken out, the passenger decrease is only

7 percent, 40,342 from November 2007 to October 2008 to 37,570 from  November 2008 to October 2009.

Ridership on Central Coast Shuttle, a van service to Los Angeles International Airport, rose from 9,651 to 9,718 — a 1 percent increase from one year to another. Rental car revenue is down 10 percent.

The most significant source of operating funds for the airport is non-aviation revenue-generating land — the Airport Business Park, Radisson hotel, mobile-home park, Sunset Ridge Golf Course and 603 acres of leased farm land.

While there has been no revenue decline to the airport, the hotel and farmers have reported fewer sales and revenues, Hastert said.

Three major airport Master Plan projects — rental car car-wash facility, runway extension and new fire station — are waiting for environmental approval, Hastert said.

The car-wash facility will be fully funded initially by reserves. The $300,000 development will be gradually paid off by customer facility charges collected at a flat rate from rental car companies Avis, Budget, Hertz and Enterprise.

The first phase of the runway extension project, including infrastructure improvements such as electrical conduit and a taxiway extension, is in the FAA budget for the federal 2010 fiscal year. However, an agreement with the FAA on the relocation of navigational aids for the Instrument Landing System (ILS) has yet to be inked.

To be built in two phases across two federal budget years, the majority of the runway project, 95 percent, will be covered by a FAA Airport Improvement Plan grant.

Budgeted at $4,454,000, $4,231,300 of phase one will be paid by the grant. The district cost for phase one is $222,700.

Phase two, runway paving and relocation of the ILS navigational aids, is expected to cost $8.2 million.

It will also be funded mostly by the FAA.

Total cost of the project, including design and construction, is estimated at $12.7 million.

Airport officials have promoted the longer runway as a draw for larger commercial and private planes, and longer corporate jet flights such as nonstops to Japan or Europe.

The new fire station project is unfunded and on hold. A Santa Maria Fire Department crew is detailed to the existing station for Aircraft Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) services.

Among the general aviation changes at the airport, U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations ceased on Aug. 25.

Airport officials had hoped the facility — opened in early 2007 — would draw corporate business jet travelers seeking an alternate point of entry into the U.S., and attract an international aircraft manufacturer to set up operations at the airport.

But user fees — paid by each aircraft clearing customs — never generated more than $17,000 in any year, while operating costs were higher than $145,000 per year.

As a consequence, a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) designation has been deactivated. Airport officials had anticipated an FTZ would make the airport attractive to large aircraft manufacturers.

Goods brought from foreign countries into a designated FTZ are treated as if they never left the country of origin. A tariff or duty is not paid on that product until it is exported out of the zone.

Also, three tenants — Space Coast Flight Center, Air Santa Barbara and A&P Aviation — have moved out of the airport. Hastert said the airport is in negotiations with prospective tenants.

In a staffing change, Anne Russell resigned after 20 years as district counsel. Raymond Biering of Adamski Moroski Madden & Green was hired to replace her.

Planning for the proposed Santa Maria Airport Business Park project south of the airfield, with a business park and golf course, is moving forward, Hastert said.

Mobile-home park residents located within the planning area have raised concerns about how and when their park will close. Hastert said the status of the park is unclear, with no immediate plans for the area including the park.

November 16, 2009

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