California Flying

Quiet skies mean no money

November 1, 2001

Ripples from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks are strangling general aviation in California a week after the event. At one small California airport, VFR restrictions have stopped cash flow and fliers have stopped spending.

Santa Maria Public Airport was home to aviation cadets during World War II. Located a few miles inland, this airport rests each morning under a thin layer of cool, wet marine fog. A good number of the airplanes here are owned by retirees of either the U.S. Air Force or Southern California's once-thriving aerospace industry. Having spent their working lives around airplanes, they follow lifetime patterns and go to their hangars each day. Although it's eight days since the terrorist attacks on America, things still aren't back to normal. The brutality and surprise of the attacks have shuffled people's priorities, and airplanes have been pushed down the list.

The California Department of Transportation says that Californians average an amazing 64,230 hours of general aviation flying (1996 figures) a week. More than 90 percent of general aviation flying is VFR. When VFR is not permitted, even for a week, there's a huge economic loss to the people of California airports.

Fuel blues

There are two aviation fuel vendors at Santa Maria. Jason Marke, manager of Golden West Air Terminals, said that there were no sales during the two days immediately after the attack. "We usually sell 500 to 600 gallons of avgas each weekend, but we didn't sell jack last weekend," Marke said. Golden West is recovering because it is the only jet fuel source on the airport, and the jet-powered commuter airline and package express airplanes are free to come and go.

Steve Brown owns the self-pump avgas system on the airport. Brown's flow numbers reflect local general aviation flying. "We usually have four to 10 sales a day — our average is about 1,125 gallons a week. This week we've had three sales. If this goes beyond the end of the month, I'll have to go to the airport and ask for concessions," said Brown.

Hunker down

Avionics West, a high-quality avionics sales and installation shop employing seven people, is stalled. Two large avionics installations can't be delivered because the autopilot testing required for system certification can't be conducted until VFR is restored. So the airplanes sit. And the cash flow stops. Avionics West also operates an online pilot supply business. When the stock market started down late last year 40 percent of that business disappeared. In the last week, Internet pilot supply orders slowed to a trickle, and then stopped.

Tom Rogers, owner of Avionics West, might have to cut back to a three-day workweek. "We can't deliver any jobs, and the work that's scheduled can't get in. Either that or the pilots are having trouble getting here to pick up their airplanes. Today [September 19] is the first day in the history of my pilot supply business that I haven't made one sale by noon. This is usually a $1,500-to-$1,800-a-day business."

The twenty-second annual Santa Maria Warbird Roundup was scheduled for the weekend of September 21 through 23. It was canceled, further adding to fuel, hotel, and restaurant woes.

Accommodations and food

Henk Pouderoyen, manager of the Regency Hotel and Conference Center located on the airport, is diplomatic, saying, "It has affected our occupancy in a negative sense." Pouderoyen is more worried about the loss of income from busloads of foreign visitors that stop at his establishment as they tour around the United States. "There's been a tremendous drop-off in foreign visitors. We don't feel it yet but it looks like we will before long."

Pepper Garcia's restaurant and bar, located in the airline passenger terminal, is a favorite fly-in destination and lunch location for area workers. Ingrid Chavarria, working the morning shift, said, "Last week it was pretty slow. People thought the restaurant was closed." The restrictions to parking within 100 feet of the terminal eliminated lunchtime drive-up traffic. Chavarria guessed that income was off about 45 percent.

Worker woes

On Tuesday, September 18, only one week after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the owners of Coastal Valley Aviation are letting four of their staff of seven go for an indefinite period. One of the owners, Bruce Hatch, said that things are bad. "Definitely part of our business depends on our being able to fly our customers back home while we have their airplanes. Some of their airplanes are not IFR-equipped so we can't do that right now." Santa Maria is located halfway between the large GA airplane populations clustered around San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hatch and Phil Kirkham and, co-owner of Coastal Valley, are worried that they may lose the customers from these markets.

"We do test hops on every airplane. What used to take us 20 minutes now takes almost an hour because of the necessity of filing an IFR flight plan. It's tough right now because there's no end in sight," Hatch said.

The local flight school has its doors open but there aren't any flight instructors around. The only person there is a student pilot quietly studying his charts and books. No VFR flying means that the seven airplanes operated by Aviation Unlimited are not making any money. Student Ryan Wong said, "I was ready to go on my first solo. Now I'm waiting."

Hertz is hurting

Clancy McAuliff, the local agent for Hertz, said that on September 11 a busload of lawyers from a national law firm was driven up from Ojai, a resort 90 miles to the south. Not being able to locate any cars closer to Ojai, they had rented 42 cars and sped off across the country. For a week the usual rental-car clients — business people arriving by the commuter airline — were nonexistent. "Today [September 19] is a big day; I've got three people off the commuter that have reserved cars. It's returning," said McAuliff. The only people riding the commuter airline to Santa Maria airport for that first week seemed to be locals returning home.

The VFR lockout is hurting Artcraft, an airplane painting and upholstery firm. Anna Alcaraz said the company is losing $40,000 a week. "We usually paint three airplanes a week. We're finishing up the ones that were here when the planes hit the towers, but there aren't any new ones coming in, and the owners aren't picking up their airplanes so we don't have any money," Alcaraz added. "Since last Thursday we've had to split the crews and ask each half to come in every other day — everyone is working six hours instead of eight or 10. They're cleaning up the hangar because there are no planes to prep."

Crop dusters

English Air Service has five piston-powered Bell 47 helicopters rigged for aerial application work. Wade Hartman, a pilot and mechanic for English, said there's no way to estimate how much business the company has lost since orders for application services are on a day-by-day basis. "We really don't know what the financial impact is, because we don't know if the farmers didn't call us because they thought the airport was closed, or their crops didn't need it," said Hartman.

"They let us go back to work on Friday [September 14] about 10 o'clock and then shut us down the following Sunday. Before we could fly again they wanted background checks on all our pilots."

The turbine-powered helicopters of Arctic Air Service have exemptions to the no-VFR restriction at the Santa Maria airport. Arctic has state and oil company contracts to supply support and environment assessment services for oil platforms that pump oil a few miles off the local coast.

Late Wednesday, September 19, some VFR flight operations were restored. Santa Maria airport businesses may not bounce back to the levels they experienced before September 11 anytime soon. Some people say there's too much economic uncertainty, and around here, too many people hunkering down.


E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.