The city airport – Fernandina Beach commission weighs safety, trees, and an airport fire station

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

City of Fernandina Beach Airport

Reporter News Analyst

The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) met in a workshop for almost two hours on October 15, 2012, to better educate themselves and the public on the current status of the municipal airport and possible future directions of airport development.  About 20 members of the public joined them.  Commissioners had identified a need for the workshop following public concern over possibly expanding instrument landing approaches to two additional runways and tree removal to insure airport safety.  Also, commissioners appeared to have concerns regarding the status of the airport layout plan adopted in 1999.  Andrew Holesko of Passero Associates, the city’s airport consultants, provided a slide presentation with information on the current plan to facilitate the discussion.

Mayor Arlene Filkoff began the discussion by reading an airport vision statement proffered by Jack Healan, officer of Sovereign Corporation and an airport tenant, during the April 10, 2012 FBCC airport work session:

The Fernandina Beach Airport is a first class general aviation facility that is operated with the utmost safety standards, the latest technology that is available that enhances and supports that safety; and attracts and encourages aviation related economic development which is sensitive to the environment of Amelia Island, Florida.

Filkoff asked Holesko if the airport is living up to that vision today.  Holesko responded that due to the temporary restriction of instrument approaches, the airport does not fully meet the safety requirement.  He believed that to fully meet the vision statement, the runways would need to be usable 365 days a year in all weather, but that to do so would involve the removal or trimming of more trees.

Commissioner Tim Poynter said that the FBCC had decided to restrict expanding instrument approaches to two additional runways (4 and 31) to avoid removing more trees.  Commissioner Charlie Corbett agreed.  Currently, runways 13 and 22 are available for instrument approaches.

Several members of the audience joined in the discussion of the value of expanding instrument approaches to all runways, pilots’ concerns, and FAA requirements.  From the pilots’ perspective, the main concern is safety, especially when there are low cloud ceilings.  Richard Johnson, former airport manager, said that the FAA wants to increase instrument approach runways to make flying more safe.

Mayor Filkoff asked if the city could expand business activity at the airport without expanding instrument approach navigation.  Sean McGill of McGill Aviation said that current restrictions have a minimal impact on traffic today.  The biggest problem would be with Fernandina Beach-based planes that want to get home each evening.  Having to land elsewhere because of poor visibility creates an extra burden for a business.  He believed that over the past year only 6-12 aircraft missed their approaches and had to land elsewhere.

In starting his slide presentation, Holesko stressed that the city is the owner of the airport and sets the airport’s goals.  Generally what triggers the need for a new plan is a decision not to do something significant that is in the plan or to do something major that is not in the airport layout plan (ALP).  Because the plan on file with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is dated 1999, Holesko suggested that the city might be at the point now to formally revisit and update the plan as necessary.  Holesko was clear that in his opinion as the city’s airport consultant, there is no possibility for further expansion of the airport either in terms of building additional runways or accepting larger aircraft.  Any changes would relate to runway improvements for safety reasons.

Holesko stated that the economic impact of the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport, as calculated by the Florida Department of Transportation is over $31M.  In one way or another it supports 357 jobs with a payroll of more than $10M.

Holesko advised that if the city wanted to move forward with a new or revised plan, the first step would be to get some hard data to determine the scope of any changes.  An onsite, professional tree survey would identify specific trees that would need to be removed or trimmed to increase instrument approaches.  The city should also look at advances in green technology that might lower operating costs.

Item 21 in Holesko’s presentation was entitled “What is NOT a part of the existing, future (or plan) for the airport?  His slide read in answer:

1.  Planning future facilities or accommodation of ANY aircraft larger than the category that operates at FHB today.

2.  Runway extensions that would encourage operations by ANY aircraft larger than the category that operate at FHB today.

3.  Commercial service by scheduled air carriers that resemble anything similar to operations at Jacksonville International Airport.

4.  NOTE:  FHB can NOT accommodate scheduled air service for numerous technical/physical/operational reasons.

In Holesko’s opinion, plan revision is not a “panic issue.”  Most of the issues the FBCC is considering can be accommodated within the existing plans.

Commissioners moved on to discuss items that had been previously approved for inclusion in the airport plan but voted down by earlier city commissions, specifically a fire station and a welcome center.  Commissioner Sarah Pelican stated that she would like to look at including an emergency operations center, a welcome center, and a fire station at the airport.  Both Pelican and Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch suggested that moving the city fire station currently located at the beach to the airport had merit for many reasons.  Aviation grant money would cover the cost of one fire bay and one fire truck at the airport.  If the city wanted to add to the facility from other funds, the fire station could be expanded to cover city residences and businesses outside the airport.  Such a decision would eliminate the need to repair the existing beach fire station and free up that parcel of land for other uses.

The commissioners also reviewed north and east airport locations for additional development and possibly a second fixed base operation.  Holesko said that grant money might be available to update airport plans, but he stressed that grant requests to improve safety would have priority over planning grants.  He suggested that he and city manager/acting airport manager Joe Gerrity meet with FAA and FDOT to bring back options to the city commission.

The FBCC concluded the workshop with a discussion over the role of the Airport Advisory Committee.  Mayor Filkoff asked if it was necessary for members to possess aviation knowledge and experience.  Vice Mayor Bunch responded that it is sufficient and desirable to have members who care about the airport from a broader perspective.  He expressed a desire that younger people join the committee who would bring fresh ideas and care about the future.  Commissioner Poynter said that the FBCC appoints from the applications received; currently all applicants are pilots or possess aviation-related knowledge.  Holesko suggested that the commissioners consider actively recruiting city residents with broader knowledge and interest in the community to apply, as is done in other communities.

Discussion of a second fixed base operation was deferred to the regular city commission meeting on October 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm in City Hall Chambers.

October 16, 2012 1:10 p.m.