Marv Everson, manager of the Laconia Municipal Airport, stands in the recently renovated airport lobby. The airport has seen an increase in jet traffic since improvements to the facility were completed, and further improvements are planned. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

Improved facility seen as benefit for local economy

By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Recent improvements at the Laconia Municipal Airport, combined with its setting at the heart of the Lakes Region, have made it an increasingly favorite destination for pilots and the people they serve. Also increasing is the role the airport plays in the region’s economy.

Helping fuel that growth is a major increase in the number of corporate and private jets using the airport, which now accounts for 7 percent of traffic in and out of Laconia, according to Lee Avery of Sky Bright, one of two businesses providing aviation-related services at the airport. He said that arrivals of turbine-powered airplanes have grown from 944 in 2009 to 1,428 last year, a 52 percent growth in eight years.

Marv Everson, who manages the airport, traced the increasing traffic to the ongoing recovery of the economy and low cost of fuel. He said business executives and seasonal residents account for the largest share of those traveling to the Lakes Region by either corporate, private or chartered jets.

“With the swing in the economy,” he remarked, “they seem more willing to spend the money.”

Everson said that the increasing number of people who are getting to know Laconia Airport prompted the Laconia Airport Authority to renovate the main terminal to create a more welcoming atmosphere. Both Sky Bright and Emerson Aviation, the airport’s other aeronautical service firm, also renovated their offices.

“It’s one of the nicest facilities this far north,” Avery said.

Paul Gaudet Sr., owner of AutoServ, agrees with him. “It’s a huge advantage to us and our business.”

Gaudet, who has a pilot’s license and also has a pilot who flies company personnel, said his business uses the airport on a weekly basis.

“Having the airport this close allows us to transport key management to auctions weekly and get them back at their desks the same day so they can complete what has to be done that day. I used to lose managers for two and three days at a time when I sent them to auctions. The way we do it now is we meet at the airport and my pilot takes them early in the morning and gets them back by 5:30. It also allows us the ability to get to real estate holdings in other states as well,” he said.

“I think Laconia’s up at the top in a lot of areas,” Gaudet said. “It has great instrument approaches so you can fly in and out when the weather isn’t as good as you’d like to see it. It’s on top of any funds available for improvement, so it was able to add to the runway, allowing bigger planes to take off from Laconia and go as far as the West Coast.

“You go there on the weekends and see the jets coming in for the races, or people who vacation on the lakes arriving. During the winter, they’re flying in and out to ski and get up into the mountains,” Gaudet said.

“Since I started in 1988,” Avery said, “the actual jet traffic has grown at least tenfold, and maybe more. There’s a lot of activity, and it’s a great resource for the local community.”

Emerson Aviation has been at the airport for 41 years, and Linda Emerson said the majority of their customers are area residents whose summer homes lie as far away as Conway. Although there is an airport in Fryeburg, Maine, it has a shorter runway, making Laconia, with a runway of nearly 6,000 feet, the closest alternative.

More improvements are in the offing. The airport is currently in the second phase of a $245,000 seal coating and runway crack sealing project and is conducting a $194,000 environmental assessment project which will identify trees on adjacent properties which will have to be removed as they extend into the airport’s air space.

The authority has applied for a $2.9 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to reconstruct the old north-south taxiway (Echo) and increase the space available for aircraft parking. The project, scheduled for 2018, will also greatly improve direct access to the runway from taxiway-adjacent lots, which the authority hopes to lease to aircraft owners and businesses for construction of new hangars.

“We’re hoping this will encourage airplane owners to build new hangars,” said Everson.

It is the largest capital improvement project at the airport in more than a decade. Ten years ago the airport rebuilt and extended its mile-long main runway and built a new taxiway for $8.5 million.

Linda Emerson said Emerson Aviation has two big hangars and is building a third, much larger one to accommodate the larger airplanes that do not fit inside the current hangars.

“We hope that will help us regain some of those we’ve lost to Portsmouth or Manchester,” Emerson said.

She explained that, because the airport is bounded by wetlands, it cannot use chemicals to clear ice from the runway. Plows keep the runways open and airplanes can come in on 20-degree days when the sun is shining, but the pilots want to get the planes under cover until they’re ready to take off again. A hangar also allows a crew to de-ice an airplane before takeoff.

Sky Bright also has a 12,000-square-foot hangar and plans to build a second one later this year or early next year so airplanes can remain inside and ready for use.

Everson noted that while traffic is heaviest between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, off-season is increasing, with the private schools in the region — New Hampton School, Brewster Academy, Tilton School and Holderness School — representing a significant share of it. He said parents fly private jets to ferry their children to and from school as well to visit them during the year.

Land leases account for nearly 70 percent of the Airport Authority’s income, amounting to more than $250,000 of the $340,000 income projected for the fiscal year which just ended on June 30. The authority showed an operating profit of nearly $90,000, or 26.5 percent of its income.

Each year the airport is eligible for $150,000 in funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for qualifying projects and uses its reserve funds to pay its five percent matching share, with the state paying five percent. The airport currently has over $500,000 in cash reserves, which will increase by more than $150,000 when the sale of surplus land to the Belknap County Sportsmen’s Association is completed.

The airport is a self-sustaining entity and is located in Gilford on land owned by the city of Laconia. It is governed by the nine-member Laonia Airport Authority, which by statute, is headed by the mayor of Laconia. All final decisions on the use of airport property must also be approved by the Laconia City Council. The last time local tax money was used for the airport was 10 years ago when both Gilford and Laconia contributed $50,000 each to the $450,000 local match for the $8.5 million runway project, which was 90 percent federally funded.

 

A private jet sits parked on the tarmac at Laconia Municipal Airport. (File photo)

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