Houston & Peach

Houston's airport is flying high

With record fuel sales in 2017, the Perry-Houston County Airport is getting closer to becoming self-sustaining.

Currently, the city of Perry and Houston County contribute $44,600 each to the annual operating budget, but with fuel sales, hangar rental and other sources of revenue, that might not be necessary for long.

"I believe within the next five years, we will certainly be self sustaining," said Jim Marquardt, the new airport manager.

Even if it isn't, he said, the airport is still a good investment for taxpayers. He said it is economically important for several reasons, but perhaps most significant is that the airport is crucial to recruiting industry. Marquardt said he knows for sure that the airport was a key factor in luring the Guardian Centers, a unique privately owned emergency response training facility about a quarter mile away.

"The proximity to the airport was the selling feature that brought the Guardian Centers here," he said. "The Guardian Centers is here because of the airport is here."

He said the Guardian Centers also has been a driver in growth of the airport, with aircraft from around the country regularly flying executives in to check out the facility.

The total airport operating budget for the current fiscal year is $761,184, with the amount beyond the local subsidy coming from state and federal grants, plus revenue generated by the airport.

The airport sold a record 111,486 gallons of fuel in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That number had been growing each year. In 2014, the airport sold 80,492 gallons, with 93,321 in 2015 and 97,699 in 2016.

Among other reasons for the growth are technological advancements, including the addition of an instrument landing system that allows pilots to land in bad weather. Previously pilots would have to divert to the Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

High intensity runway lights were added in the past year to make it easier and safer for planes to land at night. Also, the airport has installed a self-serve fueling system so that propeller driven planes can fuel when the airport is not staffed. Jet planes have to be fueled by staff, but staff is on call around the clock for fueling. The airport has a new automated weather system that allows pilots flying in to check the weather for landing.

The improvements were mostly paid for with federal and state grants.

The airport also has added enclosed hangar space. Its newest hangar, a long building designed similar to a self-storage building, has 14 individual spaces for planes and it is full. There are 43 people on a waiting list for plane storage space. Rental fees aren't enough to finance the cost of a hangar entirely, Marquardt said, or he would have about three under construction right now. But once the hangars are paid off, the rent is all income for the airport. Currently three of the four hangars have been paid off.

The airport also has corporate hangars that are built by companies and the companies pay the airport a fee for the land. Marquardt would like to see the airport get its own corporate hangar it could rent to larger corporate jets temporarily. That has been a big demand, he said, because companies flying in to the county don't like to leave their jets out in the weather.

Having a hangar for temporary rental, he said, would also help lure aircraft conventions. Different models of aircraft have owner groups that typically have annual conventions, and Marquardt said he would like to be able to lure one of those.

According to figures from the Georgia Department of Transportation website, the airport had 19,500 take-offs and landings in 2015, the latest and only year mentioned. By comparison, the Middle Georgia Regional Airport had 18,834 take-offs and landings in 2016, the only year listed for it.

Despite those numbers and the growth of the airport, however, Marquardt said there is no thought of a commercial passenger service coming to the Perry-Houston County Airport. That is solely the domain of the Middle Georgia Regional Airport in this area, he said.

But among future improvements he would like to see are adding a new, larger terminal to accommodate more people and extending the runway. The runway is currently 5,000 feet, which can accommodate planes up to about the size of a C-130, if it is not fully loaded. Marquardt said he would like to see the runway extended to 6,500 feet, which would accommodate larger corporate jets that have wanted to land in Perry but have not been able.

One of the users of the airport is AgAir, an international publication for the agriculture aviation industry, or crop dusting, which is headquartered in its own hangar. Graham Lavender, the editor and a member of the airport authority, said the airport has come a long way with technology upgrades.

"Right now the airport is as good as it has ever been," he said. "The future of the airport is really, really bright. There are a lot of things that the authority has planned to expand."

The airport's origin goes back to World War II, when it was a grass strip used for military pilot training.