February 26, 2010

Airport on 'wait and see' course

EDWARD D

— By . MURPHY

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Thursday. 01/07/2010. A couple of planes are parked outside the Biddeford Municipal airport.

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Thursday. 01/07/2010. A few planes are parked outside for the winter at the Biddeford Municipal airport.

Staff Writer

Tom Bryand thinks there's a niche for Biddeford Municipal Airport: catering to well-heeled vacationers who would love to fly to Maine for a weekend and substitute a short flight for a long drive.

Bryand, the airport's part-time manager, said more hangars and a rental car concession are some of the things that would make it ''kind of a destination airport,'' particularly for travelers heading to the Kennebunks or Scarborough.

John Pearsall had the same vision four years ago, when his company, Cumberland & York Aviation, was hired to run the city-owned airport.

He said the company was unable to pursue that vision, stymied by a long-running dispute with the state Department of Environmental Protection over expansion plans and neighbors' opposition to the airport's presence, and decided recently to give the operation back to the city.

He said the airport never generated much money, with most of it coming from low-margin fuel sales and leases of hangar and tie-down spaces for planes.

A proposal in 2008 to close the airport -- rejected by Biddeford voters -- didn't help matters, he said, and the slow economy cut into the number of people who were interested in learning how to fly and plane owners' willingness to fly, and burn fuel they would replace at the airport.

''It was very slow. Our student load was nothing,'' Pearsall said. ''We just put it all together and we just weren't able to make the numbers.''

Pearsall wishes the city well and said it might fare fine financially without the pressure of making a profit. But he said that to really prosper, the city will have to dust off its five-year-old master plan, which calls for a new runway nearly twice the length of the airport's single 3,000-foot-long landing strip.

A longer runway would accommodate corporate and personal jets, he said, noting that jet fuel sales generate more profit than the fuel that propeller-driven plans use.

Pearsall said he also knows that the master plan is unlikely to be implemented. ''The opposition was just enormous for that'' he said, which helped fuel the referendum to shut down the airport.

John Bubier, Biddeford's city manager, said he doesn't sense great concern about the airport among city councilors. For months, their agenda will be dominated by mill redevelopment proposals and a complex plan to deal with the trash incinerator downtown.

''As long as we can keep it running and keep it in safe condition, that's probably the best we can do,'' given the city's other issues, Bubier said. ''At this stage of the game, we'll see how it goes with us running it.''

Bubier said the city anticipated an ''amicable agreement'' to end the relationship with Cumberland & York Aviation and put money into the budget to pay for an attendant to handle airport business. Bryand, whose engineering business is less than a mile from the airport, is paid $4,000 a year for his role, which he said makes him primarily a volunteer.

Cumberland & York used to pay a percentage of its revenue to the city, which will now pocket all of the money generated by the airport, offsetting most, if not all, of its costs.

Bubier said the city may also re-establish its airport commission, which was disbanded several years ago.

Bryand said the city has operated the airport before and he doesn't anticipate any major problems.

Although he'd like it to be more, he said he recognizes that Biddeford Municipal ''is a small, recreational airport,'' mainly for privately owned single- and twin-engine planes and the occasional small business plane.

About 50 planes are based at the airport, Bryand said. That number could grow if the city opened land to hangar developers, who would lease the property from the city and rent out the space to plane owners.

But the city would have to fix stormwater runoff problems that are holding up a DEP permit to expand, he said, and that will probably take another couple of years.

Pearsall said he's well aware of the issues that Bryand is inheriting.

''We gave it a good shot,'' he said. ''Unfortunately, it was losing and we couldn't sustain it.''

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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