Merced, Castle Airports Jockey for Clients

It’s a tale of two airports — one in the city, one in the county.

Competition is heating up between the two, and recently, the Merced city airport came up shortchanged after some of its activity was whisked away to Castle Airport in the county.

Each has a distinctive set of resources available to it, but the relationship between officials at each site has become shaky as they compete for similar business.

In mid-March, Charter Air Transport, an aviation tour company, started landing planes at Castle Airport instead of Merced Regional Airport because of Castle’s facilities and longer runway.

The move didn’t sit well with Tom Lopes, president of Gateway Air Center, which fuels and services planes at Merced Regional.

Lopes claims that the county has undercut business he attracts at Merced Regional rather than going out and attracting its own business.

Lopes spoke at a Merced City Council meeting earlier this month, saying that because of an “unfortunate chain of events,” the city lost a valuable customer to the county.

But officials at Gemini Flight Support, a company that services and fuels planes at Castle Airport, says that it does market and try to attract its own customers. They said Charter Air Transport’s business was a deal that simply fell in their lap.

County officials agree with that assessment, and assert that they’re committed to both airports succeeding.

Regardless of how Castle Airport ended up with the business, Merced Regional lost important revenue from the move.

Brad Grant, Merced Regional’s finance director, said the city will lose about $1,000 a month because of a reduction in fuel flowage fees and luggage belt loader rentals.

That money would’ve gone into the city’s Airport Enterprise Fund, which helps to operate the airport.

Beyond those losses, Merced Regional Airport will take a hit in passenger totals, an important figure for the airport that could allow for more capital improvement grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.

If the airport were to reach 10,000 passengers a year, the airport’s grant money from the FAA would go from $150,000 a year to $1 million a year, Grant said.

The significant increase in funds could be used to improve infrastructure at the airport, but the milestone will be tougher to reach without the passengers from the charter serv-ice.

“This would help us get much closer to the 10,000,” Grant said. “It wouldn’t get us over that, but it would get us much closer to that.”

Although Merced Regional suffered some loss from the charter service’s move,
Castle Airport has seen a significant spike in activity.

Fuel purchases doubled, the number of passengers doubled and overall activity at the airport has seen a major upswing in the past two weeks, said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

“We can easily accommodate this activity,” he said. “We are seeing a bit of a resurgence at Castle.”

Hendrickson also said that no one at Castle Airport poached any of the city’s business. The charter service approached Gemini, which agreed to service the flights.

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston isn’t just the man at the helm of the city, he’s also a major player at Castle Airport in his capacity as co-owner, president and general manager of Gemini Flight Support.

But Thurston said he had no role in taking business away from the city and to the county, and added that Charter Air Transport became interested in Castle when it had to land there once because of thick fog at Merced Regional.

He said the flight crew came inside and surveyed the facilities, which include a large holding area and a terminal that can fit up to 160 passengers.

“They got a look at it and that was that,” Thurston said. “It all evolved around facilities.”

A couple of weeks later, Charter Air called and asked if it could use Castle Airport in the summer. The agreement later became a year-round deal.

“It just evolved around two things: the number of people we could put under the roof and the length of the runway,” Thurston said, adding that Gemini Flight Support at Castle Airport had just negotiated a price for fuel.

Thurston stressed that he never used his position as mayor to personally benefit from anything involving either airport.

Thurston thinks each airport has strong points — Castle Airport is more geared toward large, commercial flights, while Merced Regional Airport is better suited for small, private planes.

“The two airports have always had two different missions,” he said. “Castle is a big airport, and the marketing is done for big aircraft, things that could never go into Merced.”

Thurston did mention that Merced Regional Airport is looking into extending its runway length to bring in regional jets.

Hendrickson said both airports have peacefully coexisted for decades and that shouldn’t change.

The county is committed to helping Merced Regional succeed, because when cities do well, so does the county, he said. He added that the county has done a better job of marketing Castle Airport recently through trade shows and conferences, which exposes the airport to more industry partners.

While the loss of business has been a disappointment for some in the city and at the airport, Lopes said he plans to make a presentation soon before the Merced City Council to highlight all the positives at Merced Regional.

Despite some turbulence in the past, the city and the county hope both airports soon will take off.