The City of Hickory Manages Airport

Story by Larry Clark for the Hickory Daily Record.

It’s been so far, so good in the three months since the City of Hickory took over management of the municipal airport.

When the company that oversaw airport operations and services ran into financial trouble, Hickory officials petitioned a federal bankruptcy court to assume the responsibilities of the fixed base operator. The court agreed, and the city is now in charge.

“We took over as the FBO on Dec. 9,” said Terry Clark, who manages the terminal and the airport operations. “The transition has been smooth and service is improving. The atmosphere at the airport has changed.”

Yes, it has, according to Danny Lingerfelt, president of Charlotte Charter Jet, a corporate aircraft and pilot service with jet services and sales based at the airport.

“It has been a pleasant experience with Hickory as the FBO,” Lingerfelt said. “Everything is good. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”

Before the city took over, there were complaints about inconsistent fuel supplies, loss of hangar tenants and sometimes spotty service as the former FBO struggled with maintaining its financial equilibrium.

Now, “The fuel supply is good,” Lingerfelt said, “and Hickory is responsive to the needs here.” He said his company and other tenants requested a weather reporting service, and they got one.

Business is slow at the moment because travel and charter aircraft demands are down in the winter months. But, “We had a really good third and fourth quarter (last year),” Lingerfelt said, “but when the weather warms, travel goes up.”

He said his company is reaching beyond Hickory to market its services in places such as Charlotte and Greensboro. The confidence to do so comes in part by the turnaround at the airport.

“I haven’t heard anything but good things about the airport,” Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright said. “Terry is a super young man and a straight shooter. People like that.”

Wright said operating the airport is not something we (the City Council) set out to do, but now we’re glad we did. It’s working out.”

“Hickory has brought consistency here,” Clark said. “People appreciate the service, and we do everything we can to show them our appreciation.” When visitors arrive at the airport, they are greeted with a red carpet when they get off the plane.

The carpet doesn’t extend all the way to the ultimate destination, but it’s a gesture of courtesy and adds to the welcome, Clark said.

Courtesy doesn’t fuel and house an airplane, however. While supplies in all the necessary grades of propeller and jet aviation fuel are steady, the city is proceeding with plans to build a new fuel farm to meet future needs. Clark and Hickory officials think the airport will grow.

In spite of the aviation off-season, “Traffic has improved some,” Clark said. “We have rented more hangar space, and we still have room for more aircraft.”

Hickory has 76 planes of all types – small props, private jets and charter planes – based at the airport. Clark said a few tenants who moved away have returned.

Construction on the new fuel farm should begin in April, Clark said, and the city wants to have a full time-aircraft maintenance provider under contract then. Clark also emphasizes that Hickory still holds its certification for commercial service. The city is thinking big on the airport’s future, and it has plenty of red carpet to roll out in the effort to attract more business.

It’s a nice touch,” Clark said of the carpet. “It makes a statement.”

City took over as FBO in December

The City of Hickory took over the airport maintenance, after an order by the US Bankruptcy Court on Dec. 9, 2011 removed Riverhawk Aviation as the fixed base operator. Riverhawk, the FBO since 2008, had filed for bankruptcy protection.

The court found that Riverhawk did not have the assets to continue as the FBO, and operation was given to the city. The arrangement is permanent. Riverhawk, originally based in San Antonio, Texas, purchased Profile Aviation to become the FBO.

As the FBO, Riverhawk, and now the city, is responsible for supplying all grades of aviation fuel required by tenants and visitors to the airport, maintaining the hangars, towing planes to and from the hangars, and providing a waiting area for pilots and passengers.

The bankruptcy court said that the city of Hickory had the means to continue airport operations without interrupting service.

The city, which owns the airport and the terminal, has an airport fund in its budget that is being used for some transition costs. The city had built a second fuel farm to ensure supplies of fuel would be available if a transfer of the FBO was needed and the fuel depot and other parts of the FBO were inaccessible because of liens, credit lines and other financial factors involved in Riverhawk’s bankruptcy.

Clark, airport manager, said the facility is operating within its budget. He did not have exact numbers at hand, but said the airport hasn’t had to seek more money from the City Council to cover expenses.

The airport operates off revenues from hangar rentals, fuel sales and other FBO services. The airport does not receive money from property tax revenue.

In December, the City Council approved a $207,584 budget amendment to carry the airport through June 30, the end of the current budget year. FBO revenue will provide the $207,584.

A one-time appropriation of $90,000 from the city’s fund balance to purchase equipment needed for FBO services was also approved. Members of the City Council have emphasized the airport must be self-supporting.

The city already owned the terminal and the tower and maintains firefighting equipment and personnel at the airport.

The airport was built in 1940.

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