July 6, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
Job opportunity: The state of Alaska is auctioning buildings and equipment at the Northway Airport along the Alaska Highway, following the failure of the airstrip’s fixed-base operation.
Minimum bid: $10,000.
Energetic and optimistic entrepreneurs might consider applying to run this remote FBO. Expect a challenge. The notice of the July 15 auction by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) marks just the latest chapter in a saga starting with earthquake damage that shortened the runway, and culminating in the loss of the airport’s ability to dispense—and therefore, sell—fuel, the lifeblood of an FBO.
There is also a matter of legacy fuel contamination. Officials say they are willing to work with the new operator to solve that problem (see the site assessment for details).
Things seemed to be looking up recently when the airport that sits at an elevation of 1,715 feet along the U.S.-Canada border was restored from a 3,850-foot-long gravel surface to 5,100 feet of new pavement, said AOPA Alaska Regional Representative Tom George.
“Unfortunately during this period of turmoil the FBO, which sold fuel, provided space for customs clearance, and operated a restaurant and a small motel became a victim of the changes,” he said in an email.“Traffic diminished during the time it operated as a gravel strip, and the lack of fuel is a serious concern for GA aircraft traveling through the area.”
Tempted to bid? Give Lud Larson a call. He operated the FBO in Northway from 1980 to 1999, but repossessed the facilities in 2009 after his successor failed, he said.
You won’t be bidding against him now for the property, which includes a 6,400-square-foot hangar.
“I’m 74 years old. I can’t go back up there and do it again, and I don’t want to,” he said in an interview.
Still, you might check in with Larson for tips on how to get a fuel truck or other vehicle started when it’s 40 degrees below zero outside. That’s a skill he developed in part from trying to provide fuel service from trucks during a late phase of his effort to make a go of it in Northway.
He also can give you a variety of pointers about running a tough business in a challenging location.
As if the earthquake’s effect of shortening the runway wasn’t bad enough, Larson said Northway’s FBO was left grasping at straws when he could not get permission to relocate an existing fuel system that had the wrong kind of tanks, despite his proposal to install the correct double-walled tanks in the new location. The free-standing fuel installation allowed fuel buyers to fuel up, and then go inside the lodge to pay. Running fuel trucks instead required having someone available to fuel aircraft at all times—and being able to get the trucks running in cold weather.
The fuel system, however, “was a private system that did not meet minimum environmental and safety standards. The owner was not able to bring the system into compliance. DOT&PF was in the middle of an airport repair project and it was agreed to by all parties to remove the dispensers from the apron,” explained a DOT&PF aviation project official. The department “is ready to lease property and is actively seeking a private company to sell fuel at the Northway Airport,” said Linda Bustamante in response to an AOPA query about Northway.
Larson lamented the loss of seven jobs that can’t be replaced in the area as well as the lack of a “functioning airport” in the vicinity.
Now it will pain him to see the Northway Airport Lodge sold “for pennies on the dollar”—a sentiment he expressed in a “To whom it may concern” email to prospective bidders. (“If interested, please check it out. If not, pass this on to others,” his email said.)
George hopes that an upbeat future will emerge—starting with the auction.
“It would seem that it might be in our best interest to let the aviation community know about the auction, in hopes an aviation-friendly individual would consider re-opening the business,” George said. “Despite the challenges, it’s an important location, and historically has been a very popular airport.”
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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