Variety of jobs necessary to keep airport viable

James Taylor, general manager of Energy Aviation.

SELINSGROVE — Holiday travel is a time of big business for many public airports. But not at Penn Valley Airport, where the opposite is true.

“Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day we’re dead,” said general manager James Taylor. “Why? The bigger aircraft use Williamsport and Harrisburg during those times because we have only 4,760 feet of runway. The bigger jets can’t land here if the runway is not 5,000 feet in length. We do not have 5,000 feet, so the bulk of that traffic this time of year heads north or heads south.”

“The main goal of Penn Valley Airport is to provide service to the community,” said Bruce Witkop, chairman of the Penn Valley Airport Authority, which is comprised of nine local municipalities. “Any airport, especially Penn Valley Airport, is a tremendous asset. Airports are always the first responders when there is a crisis or there is a need, including flying organs in and out for transplants and medical procedures.

“It also enhances the ability of this area to service businesses. In the end, being able to grow businesses, which grows the economy, makes it better for everybody because that means jobs.”

A lot of people think Penn Valley is just a “hobby” airport, added Bob Garrett, CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, on Tuesday. “But it serves a vital role in the Valley to already established businesses like National Beef. Their front office is in Kansas City. They can fly in using a company jet, do business here and fly home the same day if needed.”

Having an airport such as Penn Valley “helps us stay competitive,” Garrett said. “It’s critical to the Valley.”

“I can’t think of many businesses that don’t directly or indirectly benefit from having access to aviation,” Witkop said. “Time is money. And to be able to get to your appointments, to your customers to your vendors in a timely manner means everything.”

Snyder County Commissioner Peggy Chamberlain Roup said the airport “is vital to the area’s continued growth and economic development.”

“When businesses look to expand they ask about the area’s infrastructure,” Witkop said, agreeing with Roup. “If I am going to open a business, I’ll ask what the roads are like, what are the bridges like, what is the labor pool like and so on; just as important is what is the air transportation like? If I have to fly in and drive 40 miles to get to my new location, that costs me time and money. So having an airport like this in the Valley is something that gives us a tremendous advantage versus other geographical areas.”

“The Penn Valley Airport is a significant tool for Ritz-Craft,” said Myles Biggs, general manager of Ritz-Craft Systems Built Homes, based in Mifflinburg. Ritz-Craft has a Cessna CJ3 jet based at Selinsgrove.

“We have three operations besides Pennsylvania,” he explained, “in North Carolina and Michigan. We once had to drive to our out-of-state-operations and back to do business and that would take three days. Having the airport is like having a time machine. We can fly out, do business, and be back the same day.”

Having a jet at Penn Valley allows Biggs to visit a customer, pick them up in the morning, show them the home operation “and our team. We get them back to their family at dinnertime.”

Biggs firmly believes having the airport brings business to the area as well. “Not just businesses that are already here but those that fly in to do business.

“Saving time is our most valuable asset,” he said.

Big planes fuel venue

The future of Penn Valley airport requires big airplanes, jets and turbo props because they are the ones that use services and require a lot of fuel. This is what keeps the lights on and supports employees, Witkop said. “Utilitization and selling of fuel is what keeps the operation afloat.”

Most all twin engine aircraft, and all turboprop and jet aircraft file flight plans for instrument flying. Planes fly point A to B without the ability to see outside except to land. Pilots file instrument plans because they must get to the proper altitudes where the aircraft performs best (best speed and less fuel burn).

“Three out of the four instrument approaches into Penn Valley are not approved for nighttime use,” Taylor said. “The only one that is available can only be used if the wind direction favors this runway for use. If the weather is poor, or if the cloud cover is below 1,240 feet above the ground, we cannot use this approach. Often times, if we were permitted to go lower safely we could see the runway and land. For example, on one of the approaches into Williamsport airport, we can go all the way down to 250 feet above the ground to safely land.”

“Without the nighttime approaches into Penn Valley,” Taylor continued, “corporate users such as Weis, Ritz-Craft, NetJets, Sunbury Textiles, and our 135 charter operations cannot utilize the Penn Valley Airport if we are coming in after dark, and dark is at 5 p.m. now.”

Weather, nighttime concerns

Witkop and Taylor believe Penn Valley needs to be an all-weather airport, which means it has to have instrument approaches they can use. They can’t just come in here when it’s nice, bright and sunny. Businesses are 24/7 these days. And a critical part of that is night approaches.

Not having a night approach is hurting Weis Markets, Ritz-Craft, Sunbury Textiles, the big users here, Taylor said. “We are in a catch-22. As with any airport in the country, we can make a night approach happen but it is going to be incredibly costly. And probably not cost effective.”

And therein lies the challenge of the future: upgrading the facility. When money is tight. The airport reports an income of $62,700 and expenses of $106,100 or a $43,400 shortfall.

“All in,” Taylor said, “we have $62,700 annual income to run a $7 million asset. It’s an asset that has been proven to create a $3.9 million boost to the local economy — a figure provided by a PennDOT study on local impact.”

The financial struggles pose a real challenge, according to Witkop.

“The airport will be forced to use its emergency reserve funds to close the gap in operational expenses this next year, and continue to solicit donations from users and other support groups,” he said. “For years, the authority has had to search for private donations to balance our budget as the airport owners continue to help fund our operating expenses. The airport has hundreds of thousands of dollars of deferred maintenance that we need to address now.”

Creativity remains important in fundraising.

“We should not have to be out there begging for handouts,” said Taylor. “The value and economic impact created by the Penn Valley Airport is proven. We have to find new and innovative ways to increase support.”

Big obstacles

What is limiting a nighttime approach? Taylor and Witkop explained:

1. On the north end of the airfield is basically 500 feet of a mountain. But with today’s technology and available instrumentation, a precision approach could be designed for aircraft coming in from the north.

2. For aircraft coming in from the south, the FAA has determined that many trees, several power poles and (two) houses would have to be eliminated and/or relocated.

“What is limiting us from eliminating the obstacles or penetrations to the instrument flight paths? Money,” said Taylor. “We could receive a grant from the Bureau of Aviation to do the work but the Penn Valley Airport would have to come up with a 10 percent match for its local share.”

“The other challenge we have here,” Witkop said, “is not having enough hangar space. No one is going to bring in a corporate aircraft and not have a way to protect it. These jets are $2 to $5 million assets and they need to be housed at night, especially in the fall and winter when you have weather conditions like snow and ice. And so the airport needs to expand with more hangar space, especially for business and commercial aircraft. They won’t come here unless they have a place to put their aircraft.”

Limited funding

The challenge is in finding the funding to do that. There is very little funding available through governmental agencies directly. Most of it, if there is any at all, is 50 cents on the dollar, and it would cost $1.2 million for a 50,000-square foot hangar, according to research done by Taylor. “And the authority would have to match half of it,” he said.

“We have the space for a new hangar,” Witkop said. “What we don’t have are the financial resources to make that happen. That’s another part of the infrastructure we need here to have and hold businesses.

“Here’s the catch-22,” Witkop said. “If we build it, will customers come? We know for a fact that they won’t come unless we have that hangar space. Can I guarantee that we’ll fill the hangar that first day? Well, no. But we know it won’t happen without the hangar. Same thing with the night approach. Corporations look at the airport and say, “If I can’t guarantee I can get in here at night, I’ll go someplace else.”

Talk about challenges: “We are asked to run this place on pennies and nickels,” Witkop said.

Maintenance concerns

The airport is also in a situation of deferred maintenance, where things need to be fixed “yesterday,” Witkop added. “Our blue hangar has needed a roof for about 10 years and needs new overhead doors and that is $50,000-$60,000 in repairs. The doors are in a condition where they are absolutely unsafe and we are trying to find a way to patch them until we get enough money to do a proper repair. We need a new mower, which would cost $30,000. I don’t know where the money would come from because there is no grant money for those kinds of things.”

But what about the little guys with their Cessna 150 or Piper Cherokee? Does their presence help the bottom line? Taylor is passionate about helping the little guy, he said.

“What sets Penn Valley airport apart from every other airport on the east coast is we also cater to the small guys,” Taylor said. “We put the romance back in aviation. We encourage people to replace us as pilots. The pilot shortage is huge, it’s real and if no one is growing pilots, who is going to be flying these airplanes 15 years from now? I make little supporting these people but I know I need to support these people and I want to grow new pilots.

“The big guys buying jet fuel is my only source of income that is significant,” Taylor continued. “Little airplanes, I’d be lucky to make $250 in a month’s time putting gas in all our general aviation airlines and that $250 is just cost versus expense and not overhead. It does not pay the bills.”

It is becoming increasingly impossible to operate and grow this airport for the betterment of its users and the community without the additional help from our municipalities, Taylor said.

“Penn Township and Middleburg who are ‘owners’ of the airport have had budget shortfalls over the last two years and haven’t been able to contribute to the airport,” he said. “We have often talked about forming a committee seat on the authority made up of our largest corporate users with the hopes of them possibly picking up the shares that were not being funded by these two municipalities; and who would be better to sit in this chair besides the pilots who actually use this airport?”

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