State asks for air carriers' help to manage airports

The Statewide Aviation Division is asking Alaska’s air carriers for help to improve its airports during tight fiscal times for the state.

A panel of Aviation Division leaders discussed the state’s plans at the Alaska Air Carriers Association meeting Feb. 27 in Anchorage and said they want to hear more concerns and ideas from airport users.

When it comes to rural airports, Deputy Transportation Commissioner of Aviation John Binder said the department, along with the Aviation Advisory Board, is beginning to look at ways to close a revenue gap. The state’s rural airport system operates on about a $35 million budget every year, only about $5 million of which comes from airport revenue, he said.

Adding landing fees, airport lease rates and raising the state’s general aviation fuel tax are a few revenue options Binder mentioned.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities operates 247 rural airports across the state. The Fairbanks and Anchorage international airports are owned by the state but run as self-funded, enterprise organizations.

Alaska imposes a 4.7-cent per gallon excise tax on aviation gasoline, or avgas. Some states do not tax avgas; while many have tax rates less than 10 cents per gallon. States with higher taxes on avgas often have refund options attached.

Delaware has the highest avgas excise tax rate in the country at 23 cents per gallon and does not have a refund, according to the National Business Aviation Association.

“There’s just a whole lot of (funding) options out there that airports across the country use that Alaska doesn’t use very much of because we’ve been blessed with a significant source of revenue for a lot of years,” Binder said, referring to state oil and gas revenues.

Getting industry input on which options should the state should use will go a long way to determining what changes are made, according to Binder.

The state receives in excess of $200 million each year for capital projects at its airports through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program.

Since taking office, Gov. Bill Walker has asked his commissioners to investigate ways to cut up to 6.5 percent of non-formula spending from their respective department budgets. Binder said maintaining current levels of funding support and access to rural airports “is a must.” Within DOT, aviation is not likely to be cut like some other areas, he said.

“Certainly, aviation is one of our priorities that must go on,” Binder said.

He is not willing to cut Aviation Division personnel, he said, given the heavy workload staff already carry.

Aviation Division Operations Manager Troy Larue asked the air carriers to notify staff at the airports they frequent about schedule changes. If airport managers know when to expect inbound flights they can better plan out runway maintenance, particularly when to use sand and deicing chemicals during winter, as another way to save dollars.

“If there is a day you’re not going to fly we need to know that. A lot of times we’re beating runways into submission and then all of a sudden we don’t have any aircraft flying in,” Larue said. “What we really want to do is optimize all of our chemical usage, all of our equipment and manpower, so we need to shore up our communication with (the carriers) in order to be able to do our jobs more effectively.”

Jeremy Worrall, airport maintenance and operations superintendent for DOT’s Northern Region, said the division is trying to improve the reliability of runway condition reporting at many rural airports. The state’s smallest airports are often run by low-bid, contracted personnel, not DOT staff, and have limited training to issue a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, he said.

Upkeep is contracted at about 60 Northern Region airports.

There is a push to make sure runway conditions are updated daily, but those NOTAMs also need to be vetted by division staff.

Contractors are not full-time employees and are required to check airport conditions once each day and remove more than two inches of snow from the runway prior to the first scheduled flight.

“It’s a pretty minimalist contract in terms of what we expect out of those folks,” he said.

Worrall estimated that about 75 percent of Northern Alaska airports are able to keep NOTAMs current after recent division efforts to improve the reporting.

Asking for more from contractors would probably push contract costs higher, something everyone wants to avoid when the state is facing a $3.5 billion-plus budget deficit, he said.

Consequently, Worrall and Larue asked air carriers to self-report conditions to the division when need be. Larue said if operating hours are cut to save money at some airports, carriers might have to work with the division to make sure runways are safe and usable when staff aren’t around.

Rural security

Worrall asked all carriers, but particularly those who lease space at rural airports, to take extra time to secure their facilities.

The Transportation Security Administration has increased its checks at small airports and has been finding oversights — unlocked doors after business hours that allow access to flight ramps being common — that are easily correctable.

“We’re under a lot of pressure from TSA to make sure our airports are safe and secure,” Worrall said.

Closing unmonitored quick access points is TSA’s biggest emphasis, according to Worrall.

The division is pushing “lock and key” programs to assure buildings are secure.

He noted that rural airports likely are not the focus of ill-intended individuals. However, once inside an airport with less-than-stringent security, a person can fly to Alaska’s international airports and beyond behind and remain behind security checkpoints.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 6:06pm