Reasons for flying changing with times

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

The trend is downward.

That's the word from Rebecca Cronkhite about traffic at the Kenai Municipal Airport. However, that downward trend doesn't mean there aren't bright spots on the horizon.

Cronkhite, manager of the airport for a little more than six months, said that while enplanements -- the number of people boarding airplanes -- have gone down, there is a future in increased use by cargo and private aircraft.

Cronkhite speculated that better roads may be to blame for less passengers flying in and out of Kenai.

"As roads get better, the desire to fly drops off," she said. "A family of four can drive to Anchorage for $40 round trip."

Airfares are about $100 per person round-trip.

For the 1999 calendar year, enplanements totaled 102,517. That's 13,590 less than the five-year average. Peak summer months were down as much as 1,700 enplanements when compared with the same months' averages in other years. In the dead of winter, the difference was not as much -- 1,000 less than the average. The enplanement total for 1999 was 4,157 less than 1998.

However, the lower enplanements of today are about the same as they were in 1990, and up to 20,000 more than they were during the great economic slump of the late '80s. Traffic through the Kenai airport peaked in 1995 at 130,355 passengers.

However, Cronkhite said, the enplanement numbers for the worst part of this winter will go "off the scale," because at times it was impossible to drive to the Kenai Peninsula.

"During the avalanches, Era flew a lot more Convairs in here," said Cronkhite, referring to the largest plane in the Era fleet. "And there was a lot of cargo being flown in on large-prop jets, such as (Douglas) DC-6s and (Lockheed) C-130s."

Speaking of C-130s, one service many people think must bring in a lot of money to the airport are the touch-and-gos and landings done by the military. Almost every day at least one, and sometimes up to three, Alaska National Guard C-130 Hercules do training at the Kenai airport, sometimes for hours on end.

However, the city derives no direct financial windfall from federal use.

"Because we take federal dollars to maintain and improve our airport, we take federal aircraft here," Cronkhite said. "Only if they disrupt civil aviation, then we can charge them a fee."

Last year's controversy over the noise caused by circling C-130s was solved to the satisfaction of most, Cronkhite said, when a new noise abatement deal was struck with the National Guard and other air carriers. The agreement limits large, heavy or jet aircraft from using the airport, or the airspace above town, between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. It also dictates where airplanes can make their turns and how high they must be when they do so.

"I drove around and listened to the planes from different neighborhoods and it does get on your nerves, especially when there are three planes in the pattern," Cronkhite said.

"But the military wants to be good neighbors and (was) more than willing to help develop these procedures."

On the bright side, Cronkhite said, day trips to Anchorage by business travelers seem to be increasing with the growth of the local economy.

"We have great service," she said. "We have planes that leave almost every hour, so going up for business is very convenient."

While the number of passengers flying on commercial planes may be declining, use of the airport by private airplanes remains healthy.

It's also an area Cronkhite would like to build on.

"One of my hopes is to work with FBOs (fixed base operators) and fuel companies to make this airport more friendly to corporate jets," she said.

"If corporate-class jets can be enticed to land here instead of at Anchorage, the owners won't have to drive down."

Some of the services Cronkhite would like to see enhanced are lavatory pumping, catering and refueling.

She said she also sees the Kenai airport being in a good location to take advantage of the increased cargo demands of the Internet shopping age.

"This airport is well positioned to serve outlying communities within a 200-mile radius that do not have roads," Cronkhite said. "It's a real exciting prospect."

She said that as costs increase and space becomes an issue at Anchorage International Airport, the Kenai Municipal Airport will be there to take up the slack.

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