WATERVILLE — The theft of about 2,000 gallons of aircraft fuel from the city-owned airport has prompted officials to review security, access and general management there, with an eye toward making improvements.

The city has managed day-to-day operations at the airport since 2005, when the last official fixed-base operator left.

The city’s FBO made money some years and lost money other years.

“Unfortunately, the airport is not a major economic development tool at the present time,” City Manager Michael Roy said. “That’s what we hope to make it, but at the present time, I think I would have to admit that all someone has to do is just look at the planes that are based there. It’s almost all private aircraft.”

In the absence of an official fixed-base operator, the Federal Aviation Administration requires the city to manage day-to-day operations at the airport because it has received federal funding for a number of years.

Beyond that, Roy said he believes the city would be worse off without the airport, which is a base for UPS shipments, private aircraft and some commercial flights.

Deficiencies, recommendations

Roy this past summer commissioned an operational audit of the airport, asking three city officials to review all operations and focus on its security and financial management systems.

The recommendations of the 13-page report are that the city:

* Hire a full-time airport manager.

* Find a fixed-base operator.

* Change locks.

* Track all fuel sales with a record-keeping system.

* Install an alarm and video surveillance system.

* Stop all overnight use at the airport and requiring tenants to have leases.

Roy said locks at the airport have been changed, some passkeys eliminated and a security alarm system installed, all for a cost of about $2,000. A camera system would have cost between $9,000 and $10,000, so the city is not planning to install one immediately, Roy said.

He said having a full-time airport manager would cost the city upwards of $20,000.

Deputy police Chief Charles Rumsey studied airport security and access; then-Finance Director Robert Boschen reviewed financial management; and Public Works Director Mark Turner, maintenance and operation.

The report found security sorely lacking at the airport, resulting in the theft of the aircraft fuel, worth about $8,000. It was low-lead octane gasoline used primarily in propellor aircraft.

The key needed to pump fuel had been available to every employee for the last year, according to city officials.

“It is unknown how many keys there are and no way to prevent the keys from being copied,” the report says. “Once the pumps are turned on, gas can be dispensed. Anyone with access to the airport ramp and shed could steal gas.”

The key unlocks a shed that holds the fuel tanks’ pump motor.

Police started an investigation after airport manager Greg Brown reported in late June that airport fuel was missing. Police Chief Joseph Massey estimated the fuel was taken sometime between May 2010 and January. Massey said Thursday that the investigation is at a standstill.

“We have not been able to determine if any one particular person is responsible for taking the fuel,” Massey said. “I think we’ve done a pretty exhaustive and thorough job in investigating this. Yes, we suspect that it was taken, based on evidence that we’ve reviewed and the procedures and the time frame and the amount of gas that was taken. In all likelihood, it was stolen; we just don’t know why or when or by whom.”

Airport features, users

The city-owned airport is about 450 acres, has two runways, two city-owned buildings and several privately owned hangars.

It sells two types of fuel — jet fuel and the gasoline product used primarily for propellor aircraft, and that was what was missing.

In acting as its own fixed-base operator, the city provides minimal services including coordination of catering and rental cars, as well as long-term hangar rental. Private outfits working from the airport conduct charter flights, aircraft maintenance and flight training.

The airport has been without a fixed-base operator for about six years. Telford Aviation managed the airport from 1982 to about 1998 and two subsequent operators were unsuccessful, according to Roy’s report.

Roy said the airport has two budgets — one for maintenance and operation, and another for the fixed-based operator.

Separate budgets are kept for the fixed-base operator and maintenance operations because if the city finds an operator, it would continue to do maintenance, such as snow plowing, according to Roy.

“In order for us to find an FBO, it’s important for us to say to any prospective FBO, ‘Here’s what you can make or lose every year,'” he said.

The city spends $70,000 to $80,000 a year to operate and maintain the airport, and that does not include expenses related to the fixed-base operator side. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the city spent more than $80,000 on maintenance and lost $38,000 on the fixed-base operation side, resulting in about a $126,000 loss, according to Roy.

Brown said the airport has had some good years, since 2005.

“Last year was down because of jet fuel sales and, it appears, gasoline product missing.”

He thinks this is a good time to review what the city is doing right and wrong at the airport, and to identify how to improve jet fuel sales.

“Let’s look at the entire operation,” he said.

The airport has 11 privately owned hangars averaging 40 by 40 feet in size. Assistant airport Manager Randy Marshall Jr. said owners pay an average of $120 to $150 a year to lease the land on which the hangars sit. They also pay taxes on their hangars, he said.

The city-owned hangar is 120 by 80 feet and can house 12 to 16 aircraft. People may rent space in that hangar, at a cost based on size of aircraft and frequency of moving the aircraft. A monthly summer rental averages $130; a winter monthly rental $150. A jet typically is housed overnight for $100.

As of a couple weeks ago, the city was housing four aircraft in the hangar — three single-engine planes and one twin-engine aircraft.

“These are hangared, year-round,” Marshall said. “Often, people hangar during the winter and move to a tie-down (which costs $30 a month; the airport has eight tie-downs) or lake or other airports during summer. Quite often in the winter, the (city-owned) hangar will be packed right full of aircraft.”

Marshall, who has worked at the airport since May and formerly worked for Telford Aviation, said that it is important to look at what can be done differently at the airport, because of the changes in aviation.

“Certainly, the goal is to make sure the airport is not only self-sufficient, but we can actually generate money so it is not a burden to taxpayers. In the past, the airport has been viewed as a playground for the rich and famous, which is not the case. It’s a hub for commerce and we need to treat it as such.”

Looking to the future

In 2007, the city hired Airport Solutions Group, of Woburn, Mass., to help develop a master plan for the airport — one that would assess its potential and make recommendations. That plan, whose development is funded mostly by the FAA, is expected to be completed in January.

“In order to get federal money, we have to have a master plan,” Brown said.

Brown, who was involved in the final draft of the operational audit report, said if there is a silver lining to the missing inventory issue, it is that the city was forced to look at all airport operations.

“We are in agreement on the final (audit) draft and I think it’s a step forward,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had to suffer a step backward, but this report moves the airport in the right direction.”

Managing the airport is one of Brown’s many assignments, according to the report. The airport employs four people, including Marshall, who works 32 hours a week. The airport funds basic operations for a handful of recreational pilots, a UPS freight contractor and an occasional private or commercial jet, the report says.

Airlink, LLC has been a rent-free tenant at the airport for several years, using classroom and office space there. Airlink offers charter flights and flight instruction.

City officials decided to start charging rent to Airlink, which agreed to $7.25 a square foot. City councilors on Wednesday voted to approve leasing the space for that amount.

Roy said the city has formed a core committee to meet between now and January, when the master plan is completed, to discuss how to go forward with the airport, make recommendations about forming an airport board of directors and look at capital improvements. An airport board would help identify opportunities and recommend changes, according to Roy.

Members of the core committee include Brown and Roy, as well as city councilors George Myers Jr., D-Ward 2, Rosemary Winslow, D-Ward 3, and Eliza Mathias, D-Ward 6, and Mayor Dana Sennett.

“Finding an FBO is still, obviously, our number one priority by far,” Roy said.

An operator would offer a number of services including charter flights, mechanical work, cleaning and customizing airplanes, flight instruction and sale of aircraft-related supplies, he said.

He said the city has not been aggressively searching for an operator because city officials want to wait until the master plan is complete before doing so.

Sennett said he believes the airport is an asset that needs to have a good operator to make it profitable.

If an airport operation makes money, the city makes money, he said. Right now, it depends on the sale of fuel, and those sales are not paying for the maintenance. Because the city has received money from the FAA, it is not allowed to building anything, such as a warehouse, on airport property unless it is related to airport business, according to Sennett.

He said economics may be the determining factor in what ultimately happens with the airport:

“I’ve said this before, that maybe we should also recognize it isn’t our time or the city’s time to do anything at the airport, recognizing the state of the economy.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]


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