Page 18 of the Columbia County Airport’s 2011 Business Plan laid out a plan to expend $13,060,000 in Federal, State and County funds on “capital improvements” to the facility between 2011-2015. The County would pick up over $1.5 million of the tab. Are investments of that size worth it, or could the County and Richmor Aviation make do with less?
With Richmor reporting only 140-150 jet operations per year, it’s been baffling to watch Airport committee members and County staff repeatedly stress the importance of spending millions to keep the airport “jet friendly.” Consider this: Macfarland-Johnson’s projected $13 million computes to about $18,000 per jet takeoff or landing over that five-yer period.
It’s dollar figures like that, as well as neighbors’ concerns about maintaining the “quiet enjoyment” of their homes, which has made the number of flights in and out of the Ghent airport a bone of contention in recent debate. (NOTE: combined takeoffs and landings are known to aviation folks as “operations.”)
As it turns out, the answer to that long-running debate may be hiding in plain sight, based solely on data already in the Airport Committee’s hands, provided by its own consultants and tenant. It only requires a look at figures already on the record, and reverse-engineering the totals using some highschool math.Consider the following known data points, all from sources which County poo-bahs generally have treated as reliable:
- In the handout above, Mahlon Richards of Richmor Aviation reported operations to the airport committee of 141 jets and 270 turboprops for the year as of December 11th, 2013.
- Richards also told the committee last Fall that jet traffic represents 3-5% of all operations.
- Stanwcyk Aviation, a vendor of the airport, similarly claimed in a 2011 report that jet traffic represents 3% of operations.
- A report commissioned by the County from C&S Engineering estimated jet traffic as representing 8% of all operations, and the same number for turboprops.
Using only the above information, a range of total number of operations can be computed backwards using some rudimentary math. (The results are presented in the chart at the top of this post. NOTE: The table topped up Richmor’s numbers by an additional 5% to compensate for the missing 19 days of the year, even though airports are much quieter in winter than summer.)
Taking Richards’ numbers at face value, and assuming that Richmor, Stanwyck and C&S have correctly projected these to represent 3%-8% of the total, that would mean somewhere between 1,850 and 4,933 takeoffs and landings occur annually at the airport.
The math works like this... If one assumes 148 jets represents 3%, or 5%, or 8% of all operations, 148 stands in the same relation to 3/5/8% as the total [x] does to 100%. (The author would like to apologize in advance to anyone in whom this induces a nasty 10th Grade Algebra flashback.) Solving for [x]:
Problem is that local officials and their consultants have been reporting vastly higher numbers than 2,000-5,000 operations, and basing grant applications and studies on those vastly higher numbers.
Most preposterously, a County-commissioned study predicted that by 2014 or so, there would be about 50,000 takeoffs and landings per year. That absurd number was then dutifully inserted as fact into the Town of Ghent Comprehensive Plan.
The revelation of more accurate figures than the improbable official tallies could prove an embarrassment, so some officials seem eager to derail this train of thought. Still, no one at this point is lending any credence to such grossly inflated projections, which were cooked up by C&S Engineering a decade ago.
As previously reported in detail here, 50,000 operations translates into an average of 137 flights per day. Put another way: Nearly a dozen planes would have to take off or land every daylight hour of every single day of the year to make it to fifty grand—in other words, an “operation” every five minutes.
Meanwhile, Stanwyck Avionics has claimed there are 17,800 operations per year, translating to about 4 per daylight hour. (Stanwyck reportedly has a service contract of roughly $1,050 per month with the airport, and some expect that the company would reap a nice chunk of any work resulting from the proposed Meadowgreens “taking.”) The Stanwyck numbers supposedly come from a manual count made by a student relative of the owners, who listened to radio transmissions from incoming and outgoing planes.
Those who use the airport, live or work nearby, or even just drive the 9H corridor find it hard to believe that 18,000 operations, let alone 50,000, are occurring every year. Neighbors such as the Harrison family, who spend most of their days outdoors farming, report seeing more like 4-6 planes per day, not per hour. Notice how the Harrisons’ and others “naked eye” estimates correlate quite closely with the reverse-engineered numbers’ range of 5-14 per day.
Stopping short of accusing the Stanwyck of outright fabrication, one would prefer to assume that some honest mistake was made in their counts. Diving into the particulars of Stanwyck’s report, one finds various eyebrow-raising claims. For example, their day-by-day counts purport that on April 22nd, 2011, there were 241 operations at the airport. (The next day, they reported just one operation; maybe their wings got tired.)
That day’s length was 13 hours, 39 minutes. This would have meant nearly 18 planes taking off or land every daylight hour of 4/22/11—once every 3-4 minutes. If that had occurred, one the neighbors presumably would have been going berserk. Was their some kind of airshow? Did Snoopy and Woodstock take amphetamines and do 241 touch-and-gos with the Sopwith Camel? It defies reason.
One tends to suspect that if counts were actually reviewed, some fundamental mistake was made. Perhaps radio transmissions with another airport got mixed in, or multiple transmissions from the same pilot were accidentally logged as single operations. In any event, somehow the Stanwyck numbers came out more than triple the highest estimate that can be derived from Richmor’s jet and turboprop data.
Meanwhile, actual FAA data obtained by neighbors Michael Schrom and Patti Matheney via the well-known aviation website FlightAware showed only 1,664 operations in 2011-2012, dropping to 1,469 in 2012-13. The data shows tail numbers of the planes, as well as points of origin and destination. (That number is very close to the lowest of the figures on the topmost chart in this post, projecting a total based on Richmor’s jets as 8% of operations.)
Everyone agress that the FlightAware numbers omit some planes which filed flight plans, and thus may not include “touch-and-go” operations by students and local recreational pilots. However, according to Mahlon Richards, any plane which reaches a cruising altitude of 18,000 feet is required by the FAA to file a flight plan. Moreover, charter companies have little interest in flying without a plan, due to the greatly-enhanced safety of their passengers when controllers knows where they are headed.
In any event, the Schroms point out the improbability of 15-16,000 touch-and-gos happening. They certainly aren’t seeing it the airspace over their property, which falls within Runway 21’s “Protection Zone.”
So why does any of this matter? Why should people care how much the airport really get used, and what types of planes and passengers are using?
Such questions directly impact the quality of life of neighbors, and raise suspicions in the public mind about whether the County’s elected officials and development staff are gaming State and Federal grant programs with inflated figures.
In terms of the Airport Committee’s work, resolving these questions are also germane deciding how long a runway is truly necessary—and how much economic or social value the airport has to the County. Indeed, the County’s own studies and consultants have consistently stressed the importance of accurate data to assessing options at the airport.
For example, Macfarland-Johnson Inc., the authors of the airport’s Business Plan, wrote in 2011:
The first step in determining the impact enhancement options could have on revenues is to predict the change in aviation demand if each strategy were implemented.
Gaining a clear picture of the volume and breakdown of the airport’s usage is essential for decisionmakers to make a rational, informed decision about the appropriate type of airport at this location. Such numbers also speak to the question of how many more millions of public dollars it makes sense keep pouring into a facility where usage is in decline.
That decline is another issuue no longer in dispute, with both Richmor Aviation, C&S Engineering, and airport neighbors all agreeing that usage has slumped in the past decade. Despite the recovery of the economy since the 2008 crash, a recovery at least for the types of people who charter and fly planes, everyone agrees that activity is in steady decline.
Richmor president Mahlon Richards himself has stated that he does not expect that a signficant increase in activity over present levels will occur. There is no reason to disbelieve that self-effacing statement, from a guy who has stayed even-keeled throughout a sometimes-wrenching process. The question then becomes: Why spend millions on eminent domain or other overly-ambitious infrastructure projects for a facility whose prospects are seen as flat even by its owner?