Saving Our Airports: Keeping GA at Reno Tahoe

Pilots fight for their right to fly

September 1, 2011

Photography by the author

A new day dawned for general aviation at Reno/Tahoe International Airport on July 14, 2011—not when the sun rose over the high desert at 5:41 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, but after 9 a.m. that Thursday morning. That's when four new trustees were sworn in as new members of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority board.

The appointments of Dr. Kosta Arger, Mark Crawford, Steve Katzmann, and Adam Mayberry to the nine-member airport board were the direct result of action by local pilots, reacting to their belief that general aviation was being pushed out of the downtown airport to Reno/Stead Airport—an FAA-designated reliever airport for Reno/Tahoe International that’s operated by the same airport authority. Both are owned by Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks.

John Howitt, a respiratory therapist, uses his Piper Comanche extensively in his business and keeps it at Reno/Tahoe. “I see people all over rural Nevada and northern California,” he said. “I didn’t know too many people at the airport.”

However, he’d heard that leases for two of the airport’s FBOs were up for renewal, and that their rents were going to increase significantly. Then he learned that Jet West, his FBO on the west side of the airport—more convenient to him because it’s closer to downtown—was closing, and that the airport authority would take over the hangars. He said he was told in a meeting early this year that “GA airplanes were best suited for Stead,” but even if the drive was acceptable—pilots say it can take up to 40 minutes—no hangars were available.

“I called up Bob [Larkin, AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer for the airport] and asked him what was going on.”

The politician

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Bob Larkin

BOB LARKIN
“You can’t be apathetic. There are forces at work that will rip the core of general aviation from the airport.”

Bob Larkin, a pilot since 1978, has been the Airport Support Network volunteer for Reno Tahoe International since the program started in 1997. At that time he was involved with a couple of flight schools on the field, and served on the airport authority’s noise abatement panel. “I was able to get a pilot position established on the panel,” Larkin said. “That speared me into local politics. At that time I also tried to get a pilot’s association started here.” The airport had never had one, he said, and at the time the pilots were divided based on airfield location—east side or west side.

When Howitt called, “He said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Larkin recalled. “I said, ‘Where have you been for the last 10 years?’”

Larkin—currently a Washoe County commissioner—told Howitt the airport needed a pilots’ association. “Every airport needs a pilots’ association, even if all they do is have a fly-in pancake breakfast once a year,” Larkin said. “Then they have a presence. That was a turning point, when one individual stood up and said, ‘I want to make a difference.’” Howitt grabbed the ball and ran with it.

“I started making the rounds, trying to rally the pilots,” Larkin added. “There was apathy—not disdain, but there was no enthusiasm. They didn’t feel there was a threat. That’s my biggest caveat to any airport: You can’t be apathetic. There are forces at work that will rip the core of general aviation from the airport. And once the flight schools are gone, they will never come back.”

At one time the airport had as many as five FBOs, Larkin said. That number had dropped to three, and the airport began to renegotiate land leases with two of them—Sierra and Jet West. “[Airport Authority President and CEO Krys Bart’s] stated objective at the beginning of the process was to move general aviation to Stead—all of it.”

Reno-Tahoe International Airport

The airport

The airport authority said it had no intention of displacing aircraft from Reno/ Tahoe. The airport owns no hangars or ramps, and had no relationships with the pilots, Krys Bart said. “Our relationships were with our tenants, and our tenant was the FBO.” Three years earlier the authority worked with FBOs to establish new minimum standards. “The minimum standards we had were very outdated. My guess is a lot of the FBO representatives didn’t communicate this with their tenants.”

Rents to the FBOs had to increase, she said. Their 1.5-cents-per-square-foot rate was set by 45-year-old contracts, and the FAA requires market rates. Bart said the authority negotiated with Jet West for two years; when they differed on an appraisal, another one was obtained. She said the company walked away from negotiations in May.

Sierra Air also chose not to renew its lease. Bart said the airport issued a national request for proposals and Million Air was the only respondent. It operated as Reno Air in the old Jet West facilities, and recently opened as Million Air in the former Sierra Air facility. The company will build a new, $20 million facility on the northeast corner of the airport by June 2013, she said.

The authority said it reduced hangar rates for 76 percent of tenants, and won’t raise them for two years. “We retained Million Air to manage the T-hangars,” Bart said. “We’re not in the T-hangar business.”

Air traffic is down at the airport. From fiscal year 2006-2007 to FY 2010-2011, annual operations declined from 164,939 to 90,588—a 40-percent dip. However, GA operations fell from 105,652 to 31,093, a drop of 70 percent. GA went from nearly two-thirds of annual operations to one third. The Reno air races bring 500 to 700 transient aircraft to Reno Tahoe; two other annual events also generate significant GA traffic. “These peak fuel sales that make up tax revenues for the rest of the year,” Bart noted.

The developer

Howitt stood up a pilots’ association in a matter of weeks. “We immediately formed our association, the Reno Tahoe Aviation Association. We started going to virtually every meeting, every committee meeting,” he recalled. But the association didn’t seem to be getting anywhere by talking with the airport authority. “There didn’t seem to be anything else we could do, other than to talk to our local officials—so we set about telling our story.” Howitt rallied the turbine pilots as well as the piston-aircraft pilots, and they got busy educating the airport authority’s trustees and local elected officials about the value of general aviation.

Perry di Loreto

PERRY DI LORETO
“You can’t be apathetic. There are forces at work that will rip the core of general aviation from the airport.”

Perry Di Loreto, a Reno real-estate developer, has been a pilot since 1968. “I’ve used airplanes in my business ever since,” he said. “I could never have accomplished what I have in business without aviation—it’s a multiplier for me.” He’s owned a Beech Baron, Duke, and King Air; his current airplane, and fourth Learjet, is a Learjet 40 XR.

“I think it all came to a head when some of the leases for the FBOs were getting ready to expire. What bothered me was when some of the small-airplane pilots told me…they believed they were being forced off the airport, either directly or indirectly.” Di Loreto also took offense to a May 2010 newspaper article that said GA pilots at the airport expected to be subsidized. “I went to an airport authority meeting, stood up, and took exception to the quotes in the article,” he said.

Both FBOs wanted to renew their leases but couldn’t come to terms, he said, and the piston-aircraft pilots didn’t feel that they were being heard. “Sometimes there’s a good reason to displace people, but there’s also a proper way to go about that.” Di Loreto doesn’t believe there was malicious intent to run GA off of the airport, but some people felt that way; he’s certain communication could have been handled better. “Let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt. GA wasn’t getting the attention it deserves. People don’t understand the benefits that GA provides.” He cited a busy air ambulance operation based at the airport.

“Reno’s a tourist town and a great airport is important to us,” Di Loreto said, adding that GA in Reno has been hurt by the economy—fuel costs are up and usage is down. “I also think we’ll come back.” Economically, the airport has to come up with cheaper ground rents so that hangar construction is feasible. Di Loreto said that while the airport authority cannot subsidize, not everything has to make a profit, either.

The airport has great air carrier infrastructure. “[Krys Bart] has done a great job with it. But the emphasis for years has been on air carriers and air cargo. If the plan is to move general aviation, and that’s a conscious plan, that needs to be put out there.” Di Loreto, who built a hangar at Reno Tahoe earlier, said that if GA is going to move across the field, comparable facilities are needed first.

The Civil Air Patrol

The Civil Air Patrol had sought a presence on the airport for years. “The Civil Air Patrol represents the single largest new-pilot entry into general aviation today, at least here at Reno/Tahoe,” Larkin said, adding that CAP’s search and rescue function also is important. “To not have a CAP presence here was a huge gap.”

Tom Pagnano

TOM PAGNANO
“The airport serves the community; it’s not the other way around.”

Tom Pagnano, a pilot since 1981, got involved in the Civil Air Patrol in 1999. The squadron’s two airplanes are at Reno Tahoe International, but its office remained on the site of the former Vista Airport, lost to development in the 1960s. The location was flooded—under six feet of water—in 1997, in 1999, and again in 2005. “I always wondered why the heck we were out there,” he said.

So in 2006, the squadron sought a meeting with the airport authority, seeking space on the field. “In that meeting we were basically told that ‘you belong at Stead—you don’t belong here,’” he recalled. “We did not do well trying to make a case,” Pagnano added; it didn’t help that the squadron’s commanding officer hadn’t formed any relationships with airport management.

Today, the squadron looks forward to having a home on the airport by the end of this year, assuming all parties can agree on the terms. The CAP is providing hospitality to Marines passing through the airport, on charter and military flights, as part of Operation Javelin Thrust. They’re going to and returning from mountain-warfare training at Hawthorne, Nevada; for some the next stop will be Afghanistan. “The CAP is responsible for all the staffing of this event,” Pagnano said. At the same time, adult members and cadets were helping attendees to July’s American Council of the Blind convention navigate the Reno airport.

Progress

Howitt said the airport authority conducted a general aviation workshop on short notice in September 2010, and it was not run well. But both mayors and several county commissioners attended, and it led to change—including, for the first time in the history of the airport, the replacement of all airport authority trustees whose terms were expiring. A second GA workshop in March that was facilitated by Robert Olislagers, director of Centennial Airport in Denver, was more friendly and more productive, Howitt said.

Rick La May (left) and John Howitt

JOHN HOWITT
“Now’s our opportunity. Everybody’s listening, and everyone’s paying attention.”
Pitured: Rick La May (left) and John Howitt

The second workshop resulted in the identification of several priorities for GA at the airport. The airport authority’s trustees have adopted a resolution to support and promote general aviation at Reno/Tahoe International, and have been asked to assure that there is no net displacement of GA from the airport. Because the pilots influenced the selection of the four new trustees, that appears likely to happen.

In addition, with the new trustees in place, an airport user committee should be named soon; GA hangar tenants and airport FBOs both will be represented on the panel. Bart said the committee should be in place by mid-November, if not sooner. Randi Thompson, outgoing chair of the authority’s board, felt the committee “was a way we could get stuff done without micromanagement from the board,” and will help users decide what they want. “The key to growth is the communication that we’ve now established.”

“We’re pretty well supported now, even by the politicians,” said Rick La May, vice president of the pilots’ association. “Right now, we’re kind of on a precipice, we have the [airport authority] resolution and new trustees. How fast does the user committee get going?”

“Now’s our opportunity,” Howitt added. “Everybody’s listening, and everyone’s paying attention.”

Looking ahead

How AOPA could help

Bob Larkin, the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer for Reno/Tahoe International Airport, kept AOPA informed about the negotiations for the renewal of leases for two FBOs on the field. In April 2010, he reported that the leases would not be renewed and said the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority would assume control of the leaseholds.

"AOPA corresponded with the airport authority, opposing any negative impact on GA operators and calling on the authority to continue providing GA services at Reno/Tahoe," said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president for airport advocacy.

At the request of Larkin, in June 2010 Dunn testified before the Washoe County Commissioners on the benefits of GA at the airport. By unanimous vote the commission passed a resolution calling on the airport authority to conitinue to support GA at the airport.

"AOPA brought a national presence that let the airport authority know we weren't just a bunch of local renegades," Larkin said. "AOPA's knowledge and advice were invaluable."

Pilots can’t claim success at the airport quite yet, Larkin said. “We’re even—we’re back to where we should have been at Reno/Tahoe. Success will be when we achieve parity with the hangars, and we’ve built [infrastructure] that will support current general aviation as well as future general aviation—and when the public feels welcome to get around airplanes and talk with pilots.”

GA’s future at Reno/Tahoe International ultimately is in the east side of the airport. “Pilots are in agreement with that,” Larkin said, and they want to see a fair-share allocation of the fuel flowage and use taxes GA pays at the airport. “We have not seen one investment in terms of taxiways, aprons, or hangar pads,” all of which are key to GA growth.

“I tell the pilots, we came within hours of losing general aviation from this airport”—specifically, single-engine aircraft and flight schools, Larkin added. “The pilots were asleep at the wheel. It took a major event to awaken them.”

“We’ve got years of work bringing this airport back to what it was,” Howitt said. “Get involved now. Don’t wait until the first punch is thrown.”

Di Loreto agrees that the airport has turned the corner. “I think we’re on the right track at Reno. I really believe that it’s a new day with respect to the understanding of GA,” he said. “We did it the good old Democratic way: You go to the meeting, you stand up, and you speak.” You must be respectful, eliminate emotions, and above all, follow up. “I’m pretty pleased with the way it’s gone so far. I don’t think general aviation is going to be swept under the rug any more.”

“Band together as pilots. Explain the value of GA to your elected officials and get them behind you,” Pagnano said. “The airport serves the community; it’s not the other way around.”

Email the author at mike.collins@aopa.org.