Between the recession, rising fuel costs, and the trepidation over potential terrorism, the civil aviation industry has realized significant declines in takeoffs and landings over the last decade, and the Oakland County International Airport (OCIA) in Waterford Township is no exception.
According to airport tower control statistics, takeoffs and landings at Oakland International began trending downward beginning in 2000 and fell abysmally in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Over the last 10 years, there has been steady declines in air traffic documented at Oakland International.
Preliminary statistics for 2010 indicate the airport’s takeoff and landing traffic was counted at a combined 119,591, a 17.34 percent decrease from 2009, when Oakland International totaled 144,678 takeoffs and landings. Yet, the 2010 numbers were better than operations in 2008, when takeoffs and landings dropped a record-breaking 19.8 percent from 2007′s 202,345 total operations.
“Traditionally the large amount of OCIA numbers are the smaller aircraft or discretionary flyers who fly for recreation or short distances for work — that’s the segment that has been hit the worst,” said Oakland County Director of Central Services J. David VanderVeen.
“Aviation is late in showing the effects of a recession or coming out of a recession,” he said. “Southeast Michigan in particular was hit pretty hard economically, so it’s not a surprise that (airport operations) numbers are down.”
The foretelling trend commenced in 2001 when the airport reported 283,369 takeoffs and landings vs. 2000′s 337,219, a decline of 15.97 percent. From that point on, operations figures have fallen.
In 2002, the airport recorded 277,616 takeoffs and landings, a drop of 2.03 percent from 2001 figures. In 2003, Oakland International recorded 276,153 operations, a drop of 0.53 percent from 2002 figures. However, in 2004, operations totaled 243,395, down 11.86 percent from 2003. The airport reported 207,757 operations during 2005. In 2006, the airport recorded 202,973 total operations, or 2.3 percent less than the 2005 total operations figure.
From September 2001 until December 2005, the airport averaged 20,746 operations per month. Though the terrorist attacks were a factor in the decline immediately following 9/11, VanderVeen said that the largest influence in the decline was intertwined with Michigan’s slumping economy.
“The figures reflect the fact that the state of Michigan was in the economic doldrums,” he said. “Since 9/11, the cost of insurance has escalated, and the cost of fuel was up.”
The rise in fuel costs over the last decade has compounded air traffic declines. Aviation fuel costs go up at about the same rate that regular gasoline prices rise, according to VanderVeen. However, there are far fewer gallons of aviation fuel produced, so the price of that fuel is much higher than regular gasoline.
The sale of jet fuel, which is generally used by business and corporate aircraft, has fluctuated at Oakland International since 2001, when almost 10.4 million gallons of aviation fuel were sold at Oakland International Airport. By 2005, that number had increased to 13.25 million gallons — a 27.6-percent boost from 2001.
“In 2001, we sold 736,000 gallons (of non-jet aviation fuel at the airport),” VanderVeen said. “Then, it went up slightly in 2002. It went down in 2003, again in 2004, and in 2005 it was at 626,000 gallons.”
As recently as 2009, 290,978 gallons of non-jet aviation fuel was sold at Oakland County International Airport, as well as 6,444,230 gallons of aviation jet fuel, for a total of 6,735,208 gallons of total fuel.
Fuel sales in 2010 included 361,156 gallons of aviation gas sold compared to 7,729,180 in jet fuel, for a total of 8,090,336 gallons of fuel.
“As you can see, 96 percent is aviation jet fuel,” VanderVeen said. “Traffic is down and fuel went up slightly, which is a good indicator specific to the preponderance of traffic consisting of business and industry.”
“Fuel is a killer and if the fuel prices continue to go up we’ll be in a hard position,” said DCT Aviation owner and instructor Ilya Khakham, whose business is based at Oakland County International Airport.
The news isn’t all bad, however. The airport is still listed as the second busiest airport in Michigan, with corporate and business flights remaining relatively steady.
“Both of these are holding their own — both business and corporate flying is the backbone of the airport,” VanderVeen said. “Overall aviation is down due to a number of factors like the economy, the price of fuel being high, and not replenishing retiring pilots.”
He noted that the older generation of civil aviation pilots, whose licenses were often obtained through the G.I. Bill, are retiring and there are fewer new pilots replacing them.
“We know this to be true by the flight schools who have had their activities greatly diminished,” VanderVeen said.
Instructional flying sessions and program numbers that have been down also contribute to the overall drop in operations at Oakland County International Airport, according to VanderVeen.
“We’ve lost about half of our flight schools over the last few years, but recently we’re finding there is a slight resurgence in flight training,” he said. “That’s a bright spot that offers a glimmer of hope.”
Given the drop off in flight schools at the airport, others are moving to the forefront, such as DCT Aviation, which continues to turn a profit.
“Our business has been pretty steady given that the economy is down and affects everybody,” he said. “Flight training is a luxury service, but over our three year period we’ve grown with the county’s support and especially from the airport administration and Oakland Air.”
DCT Aviation provides certified training to private pilots. The company was founded 40 years ago, but moved into Oakland International three years ago.
“We have a variety of people who want instruction for recreation flying or who want to fly for a living,” Khakham said. In a better economy we’d grow much better, but we’re experiencing steady growth and we’re working hard to glean more business and run our operations.”
In 2010, DCT Aviation graduated 15 students who earned their pilot licenses, compared to nine in 2009 and four in 2008.
“One of the reasons we’ve grown is due to our service and quality of training,” Khakham said. “We have our own design and built our own flight simulators to stay current.”
Khakham is projecting increased revenues for 2011.
“Both Western and Eastern Michigan universities have flight training schools, but they are too far from the metro area so we’re trying to bring new business to this area,” he said.
“America has always had a romance with aviation and with the flight school and small aircraft use down, it made us wonder if the luster has worn off, so we’re glad to see an uptick in this segment of aviation,” VanderVeen said.
Oakland County International Airport serves southeast Michigan and Oakland County. It’s a designated general aviation reliever airport serving individuals, businesses and industries in Oakland County, the state of Michigan and the nation. It’s currently ranked as the nation’s 12th busiest reliever airport.
More than 150 corporations base aircraft at Oakland County International Airport, many with several aircraft. Over 800 aircraft are based at the airport, and valued in excess of $200 million. The facility is self-supporting.
“The airport operates with federal and state grants and airport revenues,” VanderVeen said. “It doesn’t operate at the the expense of the the general taxpayer, nor does the taxpayer support the improvements (there).”
Oakland County International Airport features paved runways and taxiways, effective lighting and taxiway identification, and approaches to its 6,520-foot instrument runway. It provides charter contract passenger service, air freight operations, fuel services and maintenance, as well as the entire range of aircraft services.
Moreover, the airport has new and used aircraft sales operations, flight training schools, and a Federal Aviation Administration-staffed control tower complete with air traffic control services including tower advisory radar.
Oakland County International Airport, originally named Pontiac Airport, came to fruition after the city of Pontiac purchased 160 acres in 1928. An additional 80 acres were acquired within a year and construction of the first hangar began in 1930.
Oakland County acquired the then-482-acre airport from the city of Pontiac in 1967 in exchange for the Old Masonic Temple building at Saginaw and Lafayette streets in downtown Pontiac. At the recommendation of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, on March 7, 1996 the Oakland County Board of Commissioners renamed the facility Oakland County International Airport.
Over the years, the airport has expanded into a 751-acre facility by tacking on east runways, additional clear zones, and buying up properties on the site’s north side.
“We’ve added acreage mostly to make sure approaches and departures are safe and to meet state and federal regulations,” VanderVeen said.
The airport has a trio of runways, with the longest being 6,520 feet. That runway was completed a few years ago following the relocation of the north leg of Williams Lake Road further west.
Approximately $2 million in federal grant money was used to fund an expansion of the airport’s north-south runway, as well as improvements to a runway safety area.
The end result of the north-south runway expansion was a cross-wind runway increased in length from 1,800 feet to about 2,600 feet. Additionally, the runway was widened from 50 feet to 75 feet. To make the north-south runway longer, existing hangers on the far northeastern side of the airport were torn down and new hangers were constructed in the north central portion of the airport property. The expansion of the safety area provided more room for aircraft to takeoff with heavier fuel loads.
“Before we were limited and 727s and others couldn’t fly non-stop to destinations, so when we extended the runway, now they can fly to Mexico, the West Coast, Europe and Asia non-stop,” VanderVeen said. “In a global economy, that extension was very important to conduct commerce with Oakland County and the rest of the world. Every Fortune 500 company goes and out of our airport every year.”
Oakland County International Airport can accommodate some newer, larger aircraft, including the Boeing 727 and 737, Air Bus 319-320, and DC-9. In 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated that aircraft weighing more than 75,000 pounds must use a stage 3 engine, which is quieter than Lear jets and Gulf Stream corporate jets.
Millions of dollars have been doled out for Oakland International renovations and developing a master plan that delineates improvements over a 20 year period.
Just recently the airport enhanced its terminal building since it was outdated from a functional standpoint.
“This year we completed the LED terminal building and it is the first in the state, if not the nation, of its kind,” VanderVeen said. “It shows we are good stewards of the environment and when people land here it leaves an impression of a professional community.”
Over the last 10 years, a $38-million comprehensive noise reduction program has been under way around the airport. It delineates 484 houses in airport environs that could benefit from added sound insulation. The project also provides for sound-proof window replacement and installation of air conditioning, if necessary.
“This project, done in stages, is predominantly financed by the Federal Aviation Administration,” VanderVeen said. “It’s now in the final stages of insulating the homes.”
In conjunction with the noise insulation project, a ground run-up enclosure went into service in 2004 to reduce airport noise by over 90 percent, according to VanderVeen.
“It’s all part of the noise abatement project,” he said. “We built noise walls and the ground run-up enclosure and insulated the homes, and the $38 million was directed toward that end for a quieter airport.”
As for the potential for increased traffic at the airport in the future, VanderVeen said he remains optimistic.
“Historically, aviation is a pretty good barometer of how the economy is faring,” he said. “We’re optimistic for a comeback.”