For airport’s growth, better communication is key
June 8th, 2017 under Top Stories
By CAMERON DODD
PRESIDIO — Pilots landing at the Presidio Lely International airport face a unique challenge. Since 2010, investments from local and state entities have improved the hangars, repaved the runway surface and constructed a high quality pilots lounge. Pilots can now buy fuel next to the runway, leading to a more than 60 percent increase in airport revenue in the past year.
For all the local investment, an external issue is limiting to how much traffic Presidio’s airport can receive, according to airport manager Chase Snodgrass.
Presidio is in a dead zone when it comes to air traffic control radar and radio communications. Although it is perfectly placed on the path to many destinations and a prime spot to stop for fuel and customs, Presidio’s airport is outside the range of air traffic control.
“The whole Big Bend region is one of the few areas in the whole United States that does not have air traffic control radar or communications,” Snodgrass told the Presidio International. “Alaska has some big areas that are not covered. But outside of Alaska we’re one of the biggest areas.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the federal body in charge of insuring the safety of air travel and maximizing hazard avoidance. FAA air traffic controllers monitor flight plans and clear plans across the country for take-off and landing at small municipal airports and regional commercial air traffic hubs.
But in Presidio County, the FAA has left a 60-mile-radius blind spot where ever-increasing air traffic cannot easily communicate with air traffic control.
“They clear you (to enter airspace) when they know there is not anyone else there. And they can do that either by talking to all the others or by seeing the others.” Snodgrass said. “Ideally, you want both, and in our case we have neither.”
When pilots plan to fly in what are called “instrument flight” conditions, they file a flight plan with air traffic control. They then radio the nearest control center to request approval to activate the flight plan. In Presidio’s case, the nearest air traffic control center is in Albuquerque, but pilot in this airspace cannot get a radio connection with the center until they are above at least 10,000 feet altitude.
Pilots taking off have to call the Albuquerque center from a cell phone from the runway and pilots landing have to remember to call Albuquerque center after they clear the runway. They do not always remember to call, Snodgrass said.
“If someone takes off from here and Albuquerque center has cleared them to go, but 30 minutes later they still haven’t heard from them and someone else wants to come in and land, they can’t,” he said. “It’s only one at a time. I get calls three or four times a week from air traffic control asking if I’ve seen a pilot who is right here buying fuel.”
So far, there have not been any significant problems caused by delays in the complicated process of clearing Presidio’s airspace. Still, Snodgrass said he worries about potential problems for emergency response.
“The challenge here in presidio is if the one trying to come in is a medical flight, he cannot be cleared to fly down here until the other plane has been located and its known what his position is,” he said. “We do so many extractions out here because it’s a medically underserved area.”
Indeed, Presidio Emergency Services regularly transfer patients to emergency medical flights to hospitals in El Paso rather than taking them on the 90 mile drive to Alpine. The need to land medical flights largely spurred the development at Presidio’s airport that has increased traffic significantly in recent year.
In 2010, Presidio’s airport was in disrepair from years of general neglect. The Presidio Municipal Development District (PMDD) invested in sales tax dollars into fixing up an old hangar, building a pilots lounge and getting a grant for an approach procedure to help pilots land in low-visibility weather conditions.
“The primary motive was to accommodate the air ambulance flights,” PMDD Executive Director Brad Newton said. The city was concerned that the long ambulance rides to Big Bend Regional Medical Center were a health risk to Presidio residents as well as a deterrent to future economic investment in Presidio.
The PMDD also loaned the Presidio County-owned airport $25,000 to set up fuel sales, which now bring in more than $35,000 a year in revenue.
“The Presidio airport revenues this year are 25 percent higher than both airports five years ago,” Snodgrass said. “The rate of increase is the same at both airports. In spite of the circumstances.”
Presidio’s air traffic could continue growing, Snodgrass said, because of Presidio’s prime location on the way to and from Mexico. Using a flight map on his tablet, Snodgrass drew a straight line from Oklahoma City to Cabo San Lucas. Right in the middle of the flight path is Presidio.
“I could show you a hundred more routes between cities and tourist and business destinations in the U.S. and Mexico that pass right over Presidio,” Snodgrass said. “What happens is tourists go down to the Pacific coast, and they spend a few days vacationing. They come back and realize that Presidio is right on their line travel and they read good reviews about the airport so they want to stop here. They have to stop somewhere for fuel and to check in with customs.”
The potential revenue from selling fuel and catering to jet traffic between the United States and Mexico is so great, Presidio County has started looking to expand Presidio’s runway an extra 2,000 feet to accommodate larger aircraft and build parallel taxiways.
But with the inconvenience of potential hang-ups in clearing the airspace, the growth in traffic could taper off.
Planes landing at Presidio have to fly to Marfa to connect to a VHF Omni-range Transmitter antenna between Marfa and Alpine to get positional data. If they approach Presidio but cannot get cleared to land because air traffic control cannot verify that the runway is clear, the pilot has to go back up to Marfa.
Additionally, competition for the traffic is stiff. The next nearest border airports are at Del Rio and El Paso. Although they appear far on a map, the difference to a jet pilot travelling hundreds of mile per hour is only minutes.
“We want to pick up a lot of transient traffic, but they’d just as soon go to Del Rio,” Snodgrass said. “It doesn’t make any difference.”
Marfa has a similar communications problem, but the distance pilots must travel to get on radio and radar is not as great. Marfa is also a destination airport, Snodgrass said, less reliant on attracting transient traffic for revenue.
Snodgrass expects the FAA would need to invest in a remote communications outlet (RCO) to remedy the communications situation in the Big Bend. Although Presidio does not have the traffic to justify the expense right now, the safety issue as well as the potential for even greater increases in traffic could help Presidio County leverage political connections to get the needed equipment.
Snodgrass believes both Presidio County’s airports have the potential to continue to bring in needed revenue in addition to paying for themselves. For example, he offered the $3.5 million paving project at the Marfa airport.
“The federal government is going to pay 90 percent of that so the local match is $350,000,” he said. “You can’t do that on ad valorem tax revenue. I’m now saying, you don’t have to do anything because if you borrow that $350,000 on a seven year note, that’s $50,000 a year and we’re going to have more than that in surplus revenues, so the county won’t have to pay anything, the airport is going to pay for itself.”
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