Airport charts course in master plan process

— Photo courtesy of Google Earth

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission begins an extensive look into the future of the local airport with a community-wide public meeting on Thursday, December 6. Airport executives will explain the process of compiling a master plan to guide new development, safety improvements, environmental impacts, noise abatement, and day-to-day operations at the airport for the next decade. The plan is guided mostly by federal regulations, but residents, businesses, and airport users will have their say.

The meeting is scheduled for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School auditorium Thursday evening, from 6 to 8 pm.

Airport manager Sean Flynn said the commission is changing focus in its community outreach. He said the master plan will be shaped by three sub-groups: aviation, non-aviation properties, and environmental concerns.

“We want to take all of your opinions and take that into account in developing future needs, wants, and goals,” Mr. Flynn said. “We don’t want that to be all airport people. This is our opportunity to take members of our community, business people, airport users, residents, bring them on board and have them give us what they think, what direction we should be going. It’s also our time to shine. We want to show how we’ve been good stewards of the transportation infrastructure, as well as the environment, and the business community.”

The master plan, which entails detailed surveys of airport use, analysis of environmental impact assessments, regulatory changes, and development planning, will cost $700,000. The federal government pays 90 percent of the cost.

Flying low

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport master plan was last updated in 2002. Though Mr. Flynn cautions that the way the federal government measures airport use can be deceiving, it is clear the level of commercial activity has declined substantially.

In 2004, there were 50,161 commercial enplanements at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. In 2010, the number of enplanements was 34,740. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines an enplanement as a paying ticketed passenger on a regularly scheduled flight departing from an airport. Those figures do not include Cape Air. The FAA classifies Cape Air as a charter airline, according to Mr. Flynn.

By the measure of enplanements, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport ranks 276th busiest in the nation, just below the airport in Lanai, Hawaii, and just above the airport in Santa Fe, New Mexico. By comparison, Boston’s Logan International Airport ranks 19th busiest in the nation.

The 2010 figures, the latest available, do not reflect the commercial flights flown by Jet Blue, which began flying a daily flight to John F. Kennedy airport in New York City in the summer of 2011.

“Most of the conversations I’ve had,” Mr. Flynn said, “it’s mostly that people were really happy when the low coast carrier Jet Blue came into the market. It gave them a low-cost method with a very reliable airline, to get wherever they want to go. Because they fly to JFK, you can get pretty much everywhere. People’s access to the larger transportation system has been very important to the Island community.”

Most of the aircraft that use the Martha’s Vineyard Airport are not commercial flights, but private general aviation aircraft. Mr. Flynn said the new master plan will incorporate general aviation use, but it is difficult to make a comparison to years past because of variations in the way statistics are compiled, and those figures are not yet available. He said airport operations, defined as a landing, a take off, or an approach to the airport have decreased substantially since 2002, but they are rising in recent years after low points following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the economic downturn in 2008, which triggered a recession.

Change in the air

A lot has changed in the world of aviation over the last decade, and the airport reflects some of those changes.

While the number of aircraft landing and taking off has decreased, the kinds of aircraft using the airport has changed substantially. Fewer pilots are flying small piston engine propeller aircraft to Martha’s Vineyard. “Post-9/11, because of the cost for the most part, small piston aircraft that a family may have purchased in the 1960s or 1970s, it’s no longer financially viable to fly that aircraft. You have a transition to turbine aircraft, turbo-props, jet engines.”

A decade ago, private jets generated complaints from some local residents because of the noise and fuel they used. Similar concerns were voiced about airports across the country, and the industry responded by designing quieter, more fuel-efficient jet aircraft.

“The way they did that was to make them longer and wider,” Mr. Flynn said. The size of newer aircraft require more ramp space in the summer season. Over the last decade, two new ramps were built to accommodate the larger size of the aircraft. Now, Mr. Flynn said when he gets a complaint about noise, it usually involves an older piston aircraft.

Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation systems have become nearly universal in general aviation, and that requires airports to adapt with new procedures and equipment. Other large projects completed in recent years were repositioning and repaving of runways and taxi-ways. Underground utilities were upgraded.

On a jet plane

Jet aircraft still spark strong opinions among Island residents and visitors. “There are those that believe jets are a good thing, others accept them as a fact of life,” Mr. Flynn said. He said complaints about jet aircraft rarely involve noise. “What it has to do with is that the affluent people who are coming to the Island are changing the lifestyle or the cost of living,” Mr. Flynn said. “There are a lot of people that walk in and say we want to make sure you’re running a top-notch facility that would allow jet aircraft to come, because the people that have those big houses come by air. If not for having the airport here, they would not buy those homes, and would not have all the ancillary services, caretaking, supplies. There are others that say they’re driving our tax rate up, they’re building McMansions, and that’s degrading the quality of life.” Mr. Flynn said that debate will not be part of the master plan, but issues such as noise and economic impact will be included and discussed.

Ground game

While aviation is the primary focus of the master plan process, the airport business park draws a lot of interest. Though preliminary planning for a new jail on airport property was part of the 2002 master plan, little progress was made in the last decade to build it. Also on the drawing boards for the past is workforce housing. The airport commission is limited by state and federal regulations about the ways airport property can be used, and there are usually significant hurdles and barriers.

“They come with restrictions,” Mr. Flynn said. “You can say you want a jail here, but there’s this restriction that you have to get fair market value for the property.”

Also on the table for discussion this year will be a new propane storage facility. Cliff Karako, general manager of Vineyard Propane, has a proposal before the airport commission to add two additional large storage tanks to its facility in the airport business park to alleviate winter supply shortages. AmeriGas also stores propane there. The commissioners delayed action on the request until they can evaluate and review the proposal, as part of the master plan process.