Eight years ago the shiny new William M. Thomas Terminal at Meadows Field Airport opened amid fanfare and dreams of growth at the county’s main airport.
A year later Kern County’s first international flights to Guadalajara, Mexico, began flying out of the old terminal after Kern County poured $8 million into its renovation.
Then the recession hit and fuel prices climbed. International flights died 13 months after starting, and the momentum at Meadows Field quietly whimpered and faded.
It stalled in mid-flight.
The Kern County Department of Airports is still slogging its way out of the economic and financial hole the optimism of the mid-2000s dug for it.
In 2011 the county refinanced the $13.2 million loan it took out to build the new main terminal, said Assistant County Administrative Officer Nancy Lawson. Over the coming years, the department will chip away at the remaining $7.3 million balance one $468,000 annual payment at a time.
But some debts can’t be paid back.
In July, county bookkeepers will write off the remaining $4.2 million balance on a $12.2 million line of credit the Airports Department borrowed from the county’s capital outlay fund to finance the expansion of the International terminal and Meadows Field parking.
Lawson said that without revenue from the international terminal, there was no way for the Airports Department to pay what it owed.
Today, that once sparkling $8 million terminal and customs facility sits unused except during a rare visit from a U.S. president. Trash and tumbleweeds drift in piles around the abandoned baggage carousel.
But Meadows Field is far from dead.
Passenger enplanement numbers — a tally of the number of people who boarded a commercial plane at Meadows Field — had dropped from 173,737 in 2006 to 104,073 in 2009.
Since then the number has been rebounding slowly, buoyed by new flights serving Kern County’s business community.
The return of a flight to Houston took total enplanement numbers up to 127,863 in 2011 and 135,421 in 2012.
After a strong first six months of 2013 enplanements dwindled, finishing with 135,484 passengers.
Kern County Airports Director Richard Strickland, who has been on the job less than a year, said he isn’t sure why 2013 passenger numbers plateaued since there was not a significant drop in services or flight offerings at Meadows.
“I’m kind of waiting to see what happens in 2014,” he said.
Strickland said the growth of Meadows Field has to come from expansion of flights, the attraction of larger planes and the addition of new destinations. It’s a similar expansion he engineered previously at airports in Detroit, Palm Springs and San Diego. While Strickland thinks international service will return, his focus is on domestic flights.
The Kern County Airports Department will have a slow, methodical approach to the problem, he said.
“Within a year or two success, to me, would be having added at least one new destination” and maybe some larger airplanes on existing routes, Strickland said. “I’m already actively working with a multitude of (domestic) air carriers.”
The key to keeping carriers, he said, is money. Meadows Field’s long-term carriers are here because of the bottom line.
“The carriers are able to make money on the service they offer into Meadows Field,” Strickland said. “For airlines it’s about whether they’re making money in the market they’re in.”