As smaller airports around the country continue to close and fewer people hold pilots’ licenses, some Inland aviators see attracting new enthusiasts to the hobby as the main hope for slowing an industry decline that’s been happening for decades.
Over the past 20 years, more than 250 public-use airports have closed, leaving the total around 5,100, according to federal statistics. The number of licensed private pilots has dropped by more than 30 percent in that period, industry data shows.
“I know airport managers throughout the region and they’re having difficulty making ends meet,” said Beth LaRock, who manages Flabob Airport in Jurupa Valley.
Some Inland airports seem to be bucking the national trend, like Flabob and Riverside Municipal Airport, which have waiting lists for hangar space.
But even officials at those airports worry a federal proposal to privatize the air traffic control system is one of the thousand cuts that could eventually kill even successful airports.
The future health of general aviation is why an Inland pilots group is holding regular events to encourage young people and older adults to try flying.
“We’re getting gray hair or we have no hair at all, and if we have nobody to pass this on to, it’s going to go away,” said Jim O’Brien, 64, whose Jurupa Valley-based chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association put on two events in September for prospective pilots.
In some communities, the push to close smaller public airports comes from residents angry about noise and air pollution — Santa Monica is one such example — or from developers who hope to build on the land.
The latter is what happened in Banning, where council members voted in April to close the airport that one official called an “albatross.”
And in Rialto, the municipal airport closed in 2014 and is finally being redeveloped, more than 20 years after officials began working to shut it down.
The airport was operating at a loss and few pilots were using it, Rialto Councilman Joe Baca Jr. said. Now it’s part of a larger project that could eventually include industrial space, 1,300 homes and a 60-acre shopping center with a movie theater – something the city hasn’t had in 30 years, Baca said.
“There’s already been a bump in sales tax and revenue as a result of the (land) sale and some of the new tenants,” he said.
“I think some of the older residents are heartbroken by it, but I think people see the value that it’s going to bring to the city.”
Riverside and Redlands municipal and Flabob airports are all doing well, officials said. Annual operations — the number of takeoffs and landings — have rebounded since the recession and hangars are full.
Riverside Airport Manager Kim Ellis and Redlands Airport Supervisor Will Hamilton both said their facilities are self-supporting and don’t require money from the city’s general fund.
Hamilton attributed the Redlands airport’s vibrancy to a $1.3 million infusion of federal funds to upgrade the facility and the presence of several active flying groups such as an Experimental Aircraft Association chapter.
San Bernardino County has a competitive advantage because it owns six airports – Apple Valley, Baker, Barstow, Chino, Needles and Twentynine Palms – county director of airports James Jenkins said.
Privately-owned Flabob was purchased in 2000 by Tom Wathen, the namesake of the educational foundation based at the airport. Supporters are helping foster the next generation of pilots through scholarships, aviation classes and a program for at-risk kids, LaRock said.
“Throughout the country, what we are known for is our youth education,” she said.
Offering education for pilots and aircraft mechanics, attracting new blood and bringing back people who’ve left the industry are key survival strategies in the Inland area and beyond.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national interest group, offers a “Rusty Pilots” seminar to help former pilots pass a required medical check and get re-certified to fly, said Bill Dunn, who handles governmental affairs for the association.
Experts predict a coming shortage of commercial airline pilots due to the mandatory retirement age.
The Experimental Aircraft Association gives young people and adults an overview that includes a hangar tour, pre-flight check of the plane and a flight during which they get to take the controls.
Hemet resident Qeysha Giles, 31, went to an association event last month at Riverside Municipal Airport and came away determined to have a second career as a pilot.
A high-school dropout who married young, Giles said she recently earned her diploma to set a good example for her five-year-old son. A work injury limited her advancement in a customer service management job, so she’s looking for something she can do sitting down.
She thought she’d be scared during the flight, but, “The second I got in there the fear kind of subsided and the joy of being up in the sky was … so intense,” she said.
“Now I’m determined to figure out how to get a scholarship” to pay for the necessary classes, she said.
Meanwhile, industry experts are watching Congress to see if a proposal to privatize the air traffic control system will become law.
It can already be a struggle for pilots to pay for their aircraft, hangar rental and fuel, plus taxes, and experts expect privately run air traffic control would include a fee each time pilots use the system.
“To put another financial burden on them, they’re going to be flying less,” said Ellis, the Riverside airport manager.
The privatization bill is reportedly supported by the White House and the airline industry lobby, while the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and Experimental Aircraft Association are among those opposing it. It could be voted on sometime this month.
By the numbers
Inland public-use airport officials say their facilities are doing well, but national statistics show a decline in general aviation, which includes personal planes but not commercial airlines.
Public use airports
Licensed private pilots
Sources: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, General Aviation Manufacturers Association