The Great Recession clipped the wings of private plane traffic taking off and touching down in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area.
During the economic downturn, consumers and businesses were forced to tighten their spending and slash nonessential parts of their budgets. And for some, the need to fly their private and corporate jets — at least to the Midlands — was deferred.
At Omaha's Eppley Airfield, private plane and jet “operations,” which include all takeoffs and landings, numbered 28,442 for all of 2011, compared with 43,626 in 2007.
So far this year, Eppley's private traffic is up about 5.7 percent from the same period a year ago, but the slow economic recovery and high jet fuel prices continue to hamper noncommercial flights at Eppley, said Steve Coufal, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority, which also oversees the Millard Airport.
Despite those mixed trends, officials at SkyWerx Aviation have taken the next step on a new “fixed base operation” at the Blair (Neb.) Municipal Airport that they hope will make the operation the first choice for a growing customer base in west Omaha and major corporations with operations in and around Blair, including Cargill and Novozymes.
Bob Joyce, general manager of SkyWerx, said the expansion is based more on location and accessibility than flight traffic figures. Since private flights — especially for corporations — help busy employees avoid waiting in security lines and risking delays at commercial airports, it makes sense for the Blair Airport to position itself near its customers in west Omaha and Blair, he said.
“It's sort of a build-it-and-they-will-come deal,” Joyce said. “And they weren't going to come without services and hangar space.”
The project, which is expected to be completed in August, will have a full passenger lounge, a pilot rest area and refueling and maintenance service, services that all aren't currently available. The airport currently has a basic lounge area.
Eventually, the Blair Airport Authority will add additional hangars and SkyWerx will offer flight school, on-site car rentals and aircraft chartering. In another phase of the project, SkyWerx will extend the facility's runway from 4,200 feet to 5,500 feet in order to service larger corporate jets.
The longer runway will bring Blair on par with the runway at Council Bluffs, and it will remain larger than Millard's, which is roughly 3,800 feet. The longest runway at Eppley is 9,500 feet.
“The Blair airport has been overlooked because it lacked services,” Joyce said. “The Blair airport, we think, is perfectly poised to be a main reliever airport for Omaha Eppley. We're really excited.”
Thursday, during a groundbreaking ceremony that drew about 35 people, including Blair officials and private investors, a regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said the Blair expansion is needed.
“There are not many groundbreakings on these kind of projects anymore,” Yasmina Platt said.“All of the hangars here are booked, so without adding facilities there's no way to grow.”
SkyWerx officials also hope the fixed-base operation will make the airport more attractive for regional and cross-country flights that need to land somewhere halfway to refuel.
Considering the big picture, the move is a gutsy one. Coufal said capacity at Eppley's fixed-base operations like TACAir, and at Millard, which the Omaha Airport Authority oversees, aren't being stretched by traffic.
“We have no capacity constraints at Eppley Airfield for ... general aviation operations and are well-positioned for their current needs and future demands,” Coufal said.
In other instances, though, expansions and renovations have led to increases in business. At the Council Bluffs airport, executive director Dan Smith said, more customers have decided to base private planes there as the airport added hangars and extended the airport's runway.
In 1992, when Smith started working at the Bluffs airport, there were 28 planes based there. Now there are 103.
Joyce said he's confident SkyWerx and the Blair airport will experience similar growth. “Eventually, we want to grow to be the premier general aviation facility in the region.”
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