Consultant: Overhaul Humboldt airports

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – A consultant has told Humboldt’s Board of Supervisors that the county’s airport system is revenue-starved, needs to be managed through a stand-alone department with a director heading it and has an unusual lack of staff.

An overhaul of the airport system is recommended in a study from the Volaire Aviation consulting firm. A key finding is that the airports division, which is now folded into the Department of Public Works, needs to be its own department with a director whose salary would range from $120,000 to $180,000 a year.

Volaire Managing Partner Jack Penning outlined the study’s recommendations at the Dec. 19 Board of Supervisors meeting. He told supervisors that with seven unfilled positions in the airports division and two retirements, the current staffing level is 10 people.

“We have 10 people operating six airports spread across 82 miles – that is unheard of in this country for airport systems,” said Penning. “That is the leanest staffing our firm has ever seen.”

He added that the county hasn’t had an airports manager since 2013 and “that is also unprecedented.”

The short thrift on management and staff leads to long response times when hangar tenants and airline customers have questions, said Penning.

The county’s Aviation Enterprise Fund has been losing money for years and has a deficit running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Penning said the division’s budget has been “cut to the bone” and the system needs new sources of revenue.

He added that although hiring an airport director would be costly, doing new things such as installing a solar power array at the county’s main airport and raising daily parking fees by a dollar would generate up to $400,000 a year in new revenue.

Bringing airport system staffing up to 17 positions is also recommended but Penning said it will take several years to develop the income to enable it.

Other recommendations include re-structuring the county’s Aviation Advisory Committee, investing in air service marketing and recruitment and improving the county’s air cargo processing by moving it from Murray Field Airport to the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport IN McKinleyville.

The name of the main airport was created by supervisors in 2013 and recently went into effect. It has been ridiculed for its verbal volume.

Penning said the most important marketing recommendation is to change the name back to what it was, The Arcata-Eureka Airport.

He said in the course of surveying 550 locals on airport service, none of the respondents knew the airport’s name.

“The new name is not resonating at all – in fact, we had more comments saying that we were fools for ever thinking it would resonate than we had comments saying people knew it,” Penning added.

But Supervisor Rex Bohn, who pushed for inclusion of as many tourist-oriented buzz words as possible in the new name, said referring to the airport as “The Arcata-Eureka Airport in McKinleyville” is also confusing.

During a public comment session, Tim Callison, who chairs the county’s Aviation Advisory Committee, said public awareness of airport service issues needs to be raised.

“In all reality, the community doesn’t realize the importance of the airport system until it affects them, whether it be blood, mail, your Amazon package for Christmas – those are all very important,” he continued.

Callison encouraged supervisors to pursue Volaire’s recommendations.

Department of Public Works Director Tom Mattson said he hasn’t been able to fulfill the role of airport manager and recommended that the county hire an interim manager while recruitment for a director is done.

Supervisors kick-started the airport system reorganization by directing administrative staff to develop plans for creating an airports department, establish an airports director position, restructure the advisory committee and appoint an interim airports manager as soon as possible.

Staff was also directed to identify the county’s options for funding the first phase of changes.



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