Occasionally I launch off on a tangent expounding on the underperforming nature of so many local general aviation airports. I did so recently. I will again in the future. You can be sure of that much.
This is not to suggest I have a lack of respect for local airports. Not at all. In fact, I prefer them.
While there are about 500 towered airports in the United States, many of those fine fields are places I’d rather not go. Whether I’m flying my company car, a bright yellow and black C-152, my personal favorite the classic Piper Cub, or some variant of the general aviation family of aircraft, I’d just as soon not have to joust with Boeings and Airbuses in the traffic pattern or on the taxiway.
That’s not for me. I’m more of a non-towered airport kind of guy.
These airports don’t just have the potential to be more friendly and personal in their dealings with transient pilots and passengers, they’re also far more plentiful. The United States contains something on the order of 20,000 non-towered airports. We’re virtually awash in them. And yet, these are the very fields that typically get short shrift from their managing bodies.
There’s a reason for that. Several, in fact. But I’ll focus on the issue that has been the biggest stumbling block in my opinion. And that reason is simply this: Far too many non-towered airport managers don’t really understand what they have to sell.
There, I said it. Mostly because it’s true. You’ve no doubt noticed over the course of your own life that it is a poor salesperson who doesn’t understand the inventory he or she has to peddle to the public. One who doesn’t look for new opportunities to develop and market has lost the bulk of the potential their line of products or services has to attract new customers and clients.
If I were to guess, I would suggest a large percentage of airport directors tasked with managing what they perceive to be a small, local airport, believe their primary purpose is to keep the grass mowed, sell as much avgas as possible, prevent the hangars from falling down, and do whatever the FAA asks of them.
To an extent all of that is true. But it’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Airports are huge. Even the local, general aviation airport that might be considered small potatoes by the local population is actually hundreds, even thousands, of acres in size. That land is generally zoned commercial or industrial. Structures standing on that land can rent at higher per square foot rates than unimproved non-commercial spaces bring in. Sometimes, considerably higher.
Add to that the benefit of commercial and industrial space providing jobs to folks from the local area and you’ve got a recipe for success. If you can envision it. If you can implement it.
Non-towered airports generally consider their bread and butter to be the rows of T-hangars scattered around the grounds. They may have a few larger, commercial hangars. But they sometimes find themselves hamstrung by the small number of larger hangars they own and that limiting factor should a new potential tenant come by looking for a new home.
This is where salesmanship, vision, and an understanding of the core responsibilities of an airport manager really converge into one critical package.
When that new potential tenant shows up, the conversation is often short and disappointing. “We don’t have any hangars that can accommodate you,” is the sad reply. Defeat is built into management’s mindset.
And so, the potential new tenant wanders off into the sunset as the airport continues to underperform, simply because the option of pouring a cup of coffee, sitting down for a longer, more detailed conversation, and getting creative about their options never occurs to the management.
Imagine the difference in revenue, employment opportunities, and fuel sales if our airport manager knew that part of their role involves seeking out opportunities and managing the overall success of the real estate they control.
At least a portion of the airport manager’s job entails real estate development. They’ve got a large chunk of undeveloped land under their control. The goal is to develop that land responsibly in the best interest of the community where it resides.
Could it house a school on site that would expose hundreds of students to careers and lifestyle choices they might never have considered before?
What if management made it a part of their routine to invite aviation-related entrepreneurs to visit and discuss their short- and long-term plans? Those conversations might reveal potential mutual benefit that would result in a dream-come-true scenario for both sides.
Let’s consider a real estate developer who owns a large piece of undeveloped land adjacent to a highway. Imagine they meet a business-minded individual at a dinner party who expresses a desire to find a large warehouse space with an attached office that has highway access. The plan is to employ half a dozen people to start, maybe more in the future if the plan works out. They might even be interested in an option on a neighboring lot, allowing them to expand one day.
The developer doesn’t hang their head and wish they had such a facility to rent. An actual developer of real estate sees opportunity. A discussion ensues. Sketches might be made on napkins. Follow-up phone calls and e-mails result. Eventually the developer says, “Look, if I were to build the facility you want, and put it on my plot of land, and lease it to you for X number of dollars, would you be interested?”
That’s salesmanship. That’s creative thinking. This scenario opens the door to what might happen if the potential customer says, “Yes, I would.”
To which a sharp airport director might answer, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll build that structure to your specs, if you’ll sign a long-term lease for that price.”
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and before you know it you’ve got progress. And a new employer on the field, and maybe a school that trains their future employees, and all the potential that comes from this success laying the groundwork for what comes next.
I’m just saying, it’s possible.