Tehachapi Airport Becomes Strong Economic Asset

Saturday, January 21, 2008
Tehachapi Airport becomes strong economic asset
By Pierre Hartman
The Tehachapi (CA) News

The last four years have seen a transformation of the city’s municipal airport, from a mere “runway with a collection of hangars,” as Interim City Manager Greg Garrett put it, to a “strong economic asset,” with approximately 12,000 operations per year. It is evidently no coincidence that it was also four years ago last month that Dave Zweigle began his tenure as Tehachapi’s airport manager. Zweigle and former City Manager Jason Caudle were the recipients of a formal commendation at a recent city council meeting. The commendation was presented by Bob Meyer, Chairman of the Tehachapi Municipal Airport Commission, and cited the substantial airport improvements, cost savings and new revenue streams established during the last four years.

Zweigle, with eight years of aviation business, corporate, charter and airline experience under his belt, manages Tehachapi’s Airport Enterprise Fund, with a budget of $500,000 per year, helping to ensure that Tehachapi derives its share of the $150 billion annual contribution to the U.S. economy by general aviation, as reported by GAMA, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Zweigle gives credit to others, and to Tehachapi’s changing circumstances, for the airport’s new successes. There are now 129 aircraft based at the airport, he reports, which makes it eligible for $400,000 in federal airport improvement funding in the coming year, a nearly three-fold increase over the $150,000 when the aircraft census was under 100.

The Federal Aviation Administration has supplied approximately $700,000 in airport funding during the last four years, Zweigle said, for the same basic reasons that the federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of federal highways – airports are also a vital part of the national transportation system. The airport’s federal dollars are all derived from excise taxes on aviation fuel. The grants to the Tehachapi Airport have paid for runway and taxiway widening, re-paving and marking, an automated weather information system, and the new electronic gates and security system, Zweigle noted.

The coming year will see the addition of precision approach and runway lighting, LED (light-emitting diodes) for taxiway and wind sock illumination, and direct density-altitude read-outs for pilots, he added. LEDs use much less electricity and last ten times longer than old-fashioned incandescent lights. The devices are also used by Boeing in its newest “Dreamliner,” according to Meyer’s commendation. Many tax-paying, revenue-producing businesses now operate at or depend on the airport, such as aircraft repair and maintenance, engine modification, aerial photography, flight instruction, to name a few, but one of the newest may soon turn out to be the biggest and most significant. The new company, Icon, Inc., is working on a “light sport” airplane design. The light sport category, approved by the FAA just three years ago and predicted by many to eventually become the leading market in general aviation, has attracted great interest because of its fuel economy and simplified pilot certification.

More than a dozen new hangars have been built in the last few years, Zweigle reported, with the largest group located on redeveloped Commercial Way. A minimum 60 percent of any hangar’s floor space must be devoted to aviation-related purposes. All hangar owners lease the ground from the city and pay into the Airport Enterprise Fund, which also receives income from fuel sales, a share of property taxes on hangars and aircraft, and sales tax. Tehachapi Airport receives additional income when fog closes down Bakersfield’s Meadows Field. FedEx, UPS and other carriers then route their aircraft here, which happens up to a dozen times a year, says Zweigle. Another source of airport income derives from leases for special purposes, such as the Nextel cell tower on the airport’s “Beacon Hill,” Lamar Advertising’s billboards facing the highway, Hall Ambulance, and grazing permits.

Kathie Mikulovsky, a friendly and efficient presence at the airport for the last three years, is now the airport manager’s full-time assistant. She says there’s a lot of interesting variety on the job, ranging from sending pilots radio messages on winds and traffic, to managing the airport’s complex records and data system, and, much more frequently of late, directing corporate and other business travelers who visit Tehachapi by air.

In the next fiscal year, Zweigle expects to establish a new taxiway, parallel to and north of the existing runway, which will open the presently wide-open 140-acre northeast corner of the airport to new aviation-related development. By devising an expedited process by which engineering drawings could be submitted along with the FAA grant application, Zweigle was able, with help of the city council, to cut a normal two-year process to a single year.

One of the intriguing possibilities that northside access would allow, Zweigle says, is the development of a residential airpark, east of the Beacon Hill, south of Highway 58, and west of Dennison. Such an airpark would provide space for approximately 50 to 70 residences and individual aircraft parking or hangar space, with access for both aircraft and autos, but arranged to preclude any crossings or other conflict between taxiways and roads.

“There are a lot of people who would pay a premium to be able to walk out of their home and go flying without having to fight road traffic for miles just to get to the airport,” said Zweigle. “The economic value here is the direct connection to the runway. I can’t think of a higher or better use for the airport than to have aircraft owners and users living right here on it,” he said.

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