Taking off: Kenai Municipal Airport is hub of community

Posted: Monday, October 04, 2010

On a recent day, Grant Aviation aircraft readied itself at the Kenai Municipal Airport. The propellers spun with heavy strokes as the plane waited to take off.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Passengers board a Grant Aviation plane bound for Anchorage on Sunday afternoon. Grant and rival Era Alaska both fly multiple daily flights to and from Anchorage out of Kenai Municipal Airport.

Inside the terminal, Dottie Fisher, owner of Alaska's Best Travel, worked ona deal with two elderly clients. Customers spoke with salespeople at the carrental vendors and booked flights at the Grant and Era Aviation desks. Clerks as PJ's Diner took orders from clientele of their own.

Peninsula residents use the airport as a hopping spot to Anchorage and, from there, the Outside. Corporate heads from Fred Meyer, Tesoro and Marathon land there to visit their local ventures. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, among many other dignitaries, have passed through the terminal.

Former basketball stars like Karl Malone see the airport as a gateway to Kenai River salmon fishing or the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge's big game hunting.

"When you get a guy coming in who has to duck to go through the door it's pretty easy to tag him as a basketball player," said PJ's Diner owner Roger Petrey.

The staff serves corporate big wigs and stud athletes just like local fishermen.

Petrey said that he doesn't make a big deal about it.

"Those guys are up here on vacation," he said. "We respect that."

The Kenai facility, classified as a commercial-service primary airport, is a hub of activity. Between 35 and 40 people work in the terminal, depending on the season. Realtors, chefs and bartenders do business in the facility. The

National Guard does training missions on the apron; the Kenai Civil Air Patrol has its base there.

On the run

Operations staff worker Matt Landrey maneuvered his startlingly white truck onto a short paved road. He stopped in front of the main runway. A baseball cap hung over his tan face as he scanned the asphalt thoroughfare. Landrey picked up a handset and radioed the control tower. The maintenance worker said that he has to clear his movements with tower every time he crosses the runway.

Last year the tower counted 40,178 aircraft passed through the airport; 3,105 were military craft, 1,045 air carriers, 6,429 general aviation, 23,258 air transport, 22,545 air taxi and 6,326 were civil aircraft.

Era Aviation flies more aircraft from Kenai than any airport outside Anchorage, according to the company's Kenai Station Manager Kathy Roser. She said that flying to Anchorage became more attractive once ticket prices went into a slump.

"It's a three-hour drive to Anchorage," she said. "By plane, it's 20 minutes."

Grant Aviation, which leases terminal space at the airport, said that about

15 percent of its total business flies through the airport. Station manager Jason Nunn said his business operates at Kenai's airport because it has more facilities and instrumentation than Soldotna. The more sophisticated equipment enables Grant pilots to take off in foggy weather.

Kenai Aviation runs its air taxi business near the airport. Spokesperson Joan Rowley said that Enstar hires the business for pipeline surveys for $560 a pop three times a month. The air taxi ferries groceries and the occasional teacher to Tebughna School across the Cook Inlet in Tyonek.

Last year Kenai Aviation flew 6,402 passengers. Rowley said that at least three quarters of those were oil workers headed to fields across Cook Inlet and around Alaska. She said that company planes carry valves, absorbent pads and other supplies used by energy extraction services.

Tesoro Oil spokesman Lynn Westfall said that his company flies in a couple times a year.

Crowley Petroleum said that it sold three million gallons of fuel at Kenai, making the airport one of their top ten busiest locations. Three-quarters of that is shipped to Western Alaska communities.

The control tower operates from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. in May through September.

During winter months it manages traffic from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Kenai Federal

Aviation Administration Service Station Manager Rick Rogers said that the 69 staff direct comings and goings. His station provides weather advisory services so pilots know what's brewing at Kenai and abroad. He said that staff from his station rotate to Dillingham, Cold Bay, McGrath and Iliamna.

He said that the service station files around 60 flight plans per day for scheduled air carriers. Private pilots can file flight plans, which facilitate rescue operations. If a plane misses its schedule by two hours without notification, a rescue search begins in proper.

The Kenai branch of the Alaska Civil Air Patrol participated in 11 search and rescue missions last year, accumulating a total of 30 flight hours.

Civil Air Patrol Executive Financial Director Leah Reusser said that Kenai's wing flew 10 training missions and 110 hours last year. Kenai Commander

James Howard said that his squadron includes 31 regular pilots, 10 of whom are certified to participate in missions.

"10-four," Landrey said after the tower granted him access to the runway.

The truck cruised between the broken lines on the runway.

As a member of the airport operations staff, Landrey is responsible for the 332 lights, 3.4 miles of road, 7.5 miles of fence, nine gates, 50 signs and 236 mowable acres of grass at the airport. He even maintains the four windsocks.

Landrey does a runway inspection every morning. He said that he checks the lights, watches for animals and looks for debris on the runway. If there are no birds to haze, the maintenance worker heads to the parking lot to collect fees for the 200 daily fee parking spots. In a given year, he may collect approximately $150,000, according to Airport Manager Mary Bondurant.

Without birds to chase off, there may be animals to wrangle. Two moose entered the airport grounds a few weeks ago, and still live there. Landrey said the ungulates were living somewhere in the 88 acres of wooded land within the airport's 826-acre fenced property at the time.

He keeps the fences intact and trims the surrounding brush, lest the foliage raise the fence and let animals inside. He said that the service roads must be maintained at all times in case the fire department has to screech to a downed aircraft.

A firefighter is on staff and stays at the airport at all times to deal with an emergency. Landrey said that the airport currently has three fire trucks in the station.

"It's a pretty slow gig," said Zach Pettit, of the Kenai Fire Department, as he sat on a bed with a book on his lap.

Firefighters rotate to the airport once a month, he said.

Landrey, a two-year veteran of the airport is familiar with how the facility changes with the seasons. In the summer, it takes a week to plant all the flowers. He said that that the work is done one day a week and spread out over the summer.

The operations staffer drives a "thrown together" reed ripping combine through the float basin. The device is made of old fencing. He said that it rips out plants and assorted debris that could catch a float plane as it drops in. Landrey believes that he drives the contraption through the float at about two miles per hour to do a thorough job.

Summer maintenance includes ripping out spruce trees along the grounds. That prevents birds from nesting and raising their young in the airport, Landrey said.

An engineer removes gravel and debris from silt to create sand before the snow drifts in. Landrey estimates the airport has enough for the next 30 to 40 cold seasons.

During the winter, half an inch of snow triggers a plow run on the runway.

With only four staff, the airport manager occasionally runs the blade through the grounds. Bondurant said that the staff run the plow around 3 a.m. then two more times throughout a winter day.

The airport has a tractor equipped with a sand dropper. The sand is mixed with potassium acetate to melt ice. A gallon of the mixture costs approximately $10.

"It's expensive so we try not to use it that much," said Landrey.

Last year, the airport bought a truck with a rotatable 24 foot wide snow plow to keep the runways and parking lots clean.

The operations building contains the firefighter's living quarters, a miniature gym, garage, break room and an emergency room kept aside in case of an accident within the facilities. Inside is a cot with a medical doll, a big screen television and a number of boxes.

"It seems it's being used as a storage room at the moment," he said, as his hand rested on the TV.

Terminal velocity: Business in and out Dottie Fisher is the owner and operator of Alaska's Best Travel. Her company books trips to and from Kenai Airport, which she claims generates more a million dollars in business.

"Clients leave voicemails at 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. because for them it's an appropriate time to call," she said.

The location within the terminal keeps her close to her clientele, but provides other amenities as well.

"If I rented another location I'd have to pay additional for snow removal," she said.

Alaska Realty Group owner Kathy Chircop brings clients to the diner to talk about deals. Oil field works from the North Slope come by in search of rental property, she said. Chircop picked the airport as her business's first location because of the flow of people and nearby luxuries: a function bar, restaurant and rental car services.

"It's a great spot to get to the public," she said.

Avis Rent-A-Car manager Bob Rogers said that his four-person staffed leased around 3,500 cars last year, netting the shop about $620,000.

Diner owner Roger Petrey's restaurant began in the airport as Wayne's Diner, left for a stint outside the terminal then returned after a year and half.

Business is more stable inside the facility, he said. Kitchen manager

Patrick Petrey said that the sit-down meal crowd frequents the diner in the winter, whereas the grab-and-go flight business provides business in the summer.

"The peaks and valleys are a lot smoother here because of the airport traffic," said Petrey

Upper Deck Airport Lounge Bartender Rhonda Thompson said that fliers buy drinks after a flight. The flow of Slope workers provides steady business, much like the Realtor. According to Thompson, a quarter of the people come just to watch planes and take in the natural beauty visible from the window.

"You can see the entire mountain range," she said.

Peninsula Aero Technology owner Scott Bremer said that insurance requirements brought his business to the Kenai Airport because it has control tower. There are other perks that keep him around though.

"Soldotna doesn't always plow," he said. "There's more capability for aircraft to fly in. We can get customers any time here."

Bremer said that he worked on long-time Denver Broncos kicker Jason Elam's plane once. He fixes up planes, inspects aircraft before purchase and fixes navigation equipment.

Aero Maintenance owner Russell Winger said that he set up his business at the airport for obvious reasons.

"That's where the airplanes are," he said.

Winger adds floats to planes, changes oil and does routine airplane maintenance.

He doesn't describe his clientele as glamorous, but is appreciative of the steady work.

"I do the most work for Kenai Aviation," he said. "Once in awhile I'll go out and put air in some big shot's jet though."

Alaska Cab owner Brent Hibbert stations six cabs at the airport and three or four at night.

"Generally every flight there's somebody that needs a ride," he said.

Inlet Cab Director PJ Altman keeps three taxis there all day, with mixed results.

"Sometimes you don't get anything for days; sometimes we'll get 10 in a day," he said. "It's not something you can predict."

Another upside to working at the airport is watching the planes. The PJ's

Diner staff liked watching the military flights in particular.

Alaska National Guard Maj. Mike Cummings said that airplanes practice at the airport nearly every day. These include night-vision goggle use, jet engine failings, short-start take-offs, touch-and-goes as well as assault landings.

"It's a training landing that's practicing for going into short dirt fields, say in Afghanistan or wherever," he said.

The kitchen manager likes watching the black clouds of smoke emanating from the wheels after the latter. The manuever keeps his boss watching when he gets out of his office. He watches with awe as the military planes take off after short distances especially when compared to cargo planes loaded up with fuel that "use every inch of the runway," he said.

Notable pilots may come through the restaurant, but Petrey doesn't pester them. He holds them in the same regard as corporate headmen and star atheletes.

"Everyone who flies a plane is famous to me, because I'm scared of flying."

Tony Cella can be reached tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com.

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