Van Nuys Airport Flies Into Stormy Skies

vnyOnce-booming Van Nuys Airport flies into stormy skies
The number of flights at Van Nuys Airport has been decreasing steadily year to year.

Van Nuys Airport traffic has taken a nose dive over the past decade, with blame being placed on everything from poor management and high rents to a precipitous decline in propeller planes.

Once the nation’s busiest general aviation airport, Van Nuys has watched its traffic shrink by half over the decade to levels not seen since the early 1960s.

Some say that Van Nuys Airport – the economic engine of the San Fernando Valley – is in a state of economic emergency, with airplane business at top airport companies down 30 percent to 45 percent.

Airport officials say the poor economy has led to a few tough years, but say the facility could be poised for a revival.

“If you look at it as a whole, we’ve always been up and down,” said Diana Sanchez, spokeswoman for Van Nuys Airport. “Will we hit 600,000 (operations) again? It’s hard to say.

“The overall health of the airport is good. … We’re in the black, with $1 million in anticipated revenue next fiscal year.”

The number of takeoffs and landings have fallen by roughly 10 percent a year since 1999, when the airport had nearly 607,000 aircraft operations, according to airport records.

By last year, the airport known as VNY had fallen to 339,000 combined takeoffs and landings – the lowest since 1963.

“My biggest beef is: No one can make a decision or do anything,” said Mike Konle, an entertainment industry businessman who owns a twin-engine Cessna and is a member of an airport hangar association, who has flown out of Van Nuys Airport since 1975. “No one’s running it like a business.

“We’re overtaxed. Rents are too high. We’re all paying (to support) the few people that are left.”

While some critics have called for privatization of airport management, others have called for an airport commission to answer to the needs of VNY.

Whatever the case, everyone agrees Van Nuys Airport deserves much more support from the city, whose Los

Angeles World Airports agency also manages Palmdale Regional and Los Angeles and Ontario International airports. Airport manager Jess Romo, who also manages Ontario International, and Mike Molina, the airport’s deputy director of external affairs, did not respond to requests for comment.

During the nation’s largest business aviation convention last fall, no LAWA officials were on hand to promote – and draw business – to the flagging airport.

“The two biggest economic drivers in the San Fernando Valley are Van Nuys and Burbank airports,” said Rob Gilmore, director of investor relations for the Valley Economic Alliance. “Their interests are our interests – and they need to be coddled.”

On the eve of the recession in late 2007, an economic study credited Van Nuys Airport for contributing $1.3 billion to the local economy, while generating more than 12,300 jobs.

But as the study heralded the 730-acre airport as No. 1 in the nation for propeller-driven and corporate jet traffic, it had already been surpassed by Deer Valley Airport outside Phoenix.

Two years later, employment at 15 top employers at Van Nuys Airport dropped by 41.2 percent, for a loss of 400 jobs, according to a 2009 survey by the Valley Industry & Commerce Association.

That has meant less business for surrounding hotels, bars, restaurants and airport service facilities.

At the Airtel Plaza Hotel near the airport’s storied One-Six-Right runway, occupancy rates are down “substantially,” said its owner, Jim Dunn.

“A healthy airport is a healthy hotel,” Dunn said. “If Los Angeles promotes its business airport, there will be more traffic here.”

Hangars across the runway have record vacancy rates, as high as 20 percent, while rental rates to smaller tenants have plunged, lease holders say.

On the tarmac outside, vacancies of propeller plane tie-downs are much higher.

Airplane fuel sales, whose city fees were nearly tripled two years ago, have fallen by 30 percent.

And while a planned propeller park has been stalled for several years, airport business owners say as many as $70million in airport development projects – including 500,000 square feet of unbuilt hangars – have been held up by current lease negotiations between the airport master leaseholders, or so-called fixed-base operators.

“There’s been an economic crisis, and in order to maximize opportunities after this economic downturn, they have to stabilize rents,” said Curt Castagna, president of the Van Nuys Airport Association, which represents 100 aviation and non-aviation tenants.

“We need a leasing process that is managed consistently – not because we want cheaper rents, but because we want a more stable process. It’s a financing issue.”

What was supposed to have been a streamlined leasing process – with standardized rates instead of the current ad hoc leases – is now two years behind the mandated timeline set by the City Charter, Castagna said.

Without standard, long-term contracts with the city, they say leaseholders have had difficulty obtaining bank loans – and have put the brakes on development plans.

The tardy leases could also mean retroactive rental payments that could easily run into the millions to major leaseholders and their tenants.

Others accuse the airport managers of trying to raise property lease rates while many aviation businesses struggle to stay airborne.

“We’re talking with them now, but there’s no real effort to resolve it,” said airport patriarch Clay Lacy, founder of Clay Lacy Aviation, who is a fixed-base operator. “They want to raise rents 50 percent or more, but it doesn’t make sense, because nobody is really making it.”

Van Nuys Airport, founded in 1928, once beckoned pioneering pilots to stretch their wings, and Hollywood stars to strut their struts, including Humphrey Bogart in the famous last scene of “Casablanca.”

By 1976, it recorded a record 618,000 takeoffs or landings of mostly propeller planes, to become the busiest general aviation airport in the nation.

Many blame the loss of such piston-driven aircraft – and a half dozen large flight schools, the last closing last year – for the overall decline of Van Nuys Airport’s total traffic.

Three decades ago, there were as many as 1,400 prop-driven Cessnas and other piston planes. By 2009, there were less than 400 – the remainder finding homes at cheaper airports in Pacoima or Camarillo. And when the small planes left, so did many flight schools, including Van Nuys Flight Center, last year.

Veteran pilots at VNY can remember when the busiest day had 30 planes in the runway flight pattern. Now they’re lucky to see three or four.
In the meantime, airplane manufacturers went from producing 17,000 prop planes in 1978 to 2,000 last year, Lacy said, while the cost of owning and renting such planes has skyrocketed.
At the same time, the number of corporate business jets went from the single Learjet imported by Lacy in 1964 to around 15 small jets in the ’70s – to 230 such jets today.
For an airport economy, the difference between an airport populated by private propeller aircraft and corporate business jets, which bring in more money, has been profound.
While Van Nuys Airport generated $8 million in operating revenue from mostly flying fees and building rentals in fiscal 1999-2000 during near-record mostly propeller operations, it earned nearly $18 million in 2009-10, during the economic collapse, according to LAWA records.
Lacy, who has flown out of Van Nuys Airport since 1952, and set up his charter business there in 1968, said he thinks the airport’s future lies in its role as L.A.’s business airport, with daily flights to Asia and to Europe.
“Economically, it’s probably much better off than in 1999, with the transition to jet planes,” Lacy said. “They bring in a lot more money.
“Those small airplanes are privately owned and produce $2,000 to $3,000 a year. The jets produce hundreds of thousands (each) a year … This airport has changed from a general aviation airport to a mostly business airport.”
Don Schultz of Van Nuys, who for 26 years has served on the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council, said it’s wrong for the airport to not support general aviation, and the building of the 30-acre Propeller Park.
“I don’t believe it’ll ever be built,” said Schultz, whose council has pushed for a local airport commission. “I don’t believe that LAWA staff are sincere about it being built, because they get higher rents from jet operations.
“(But) where people learn how to fly and find a career in aviation? This is being tossed out at Van Nuys Airport for jet operations.”
For many propeller pilots, flying out of Van Nuys Airport is simply too expensive.
Boots, a flight instructor and licensed aviation mechanic, manages an entertainment equipment business next to the airport. For decades, the North Hills resident- who goes by the one legal name – kept his Cessna in a nearby hangar, where pilots had weekend barbecues and everyone knew each other.
No more, he said, not since the airport clamped down on social events.
And like many propeller pilots, he sold his plane when his hangar rent went from $650 a month to $900 in two years.
“So many of the props have left the airport altogether, mainly because of cost,” said Boots. “This airport is one of the most expensive in the nation to operate out of. I just gave up.
“Van Nuys Airport is terminal,” Boots said, “and the only reason it doesn’t die is because it’s run by the city, which won’t let it be run by a private manager.”
George Hulett, a chief pilot for a vintage B-25 bomber based at Van Nuys Airport, paid less than $200 a month six years ago to house his Cessna 210.
He now pays nearly $500.
He said that airport management really doesn’t understand how aviation works as a business, from running a flight school to being a fixed-base operator.
“If I was a doctor and Van Nuys was a patient, I’d be calling the family over, and calling for a priest. But if better management can come in soon, it could survive.”
(Hans Gutkencht/Staff Photographer)

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