Airport offers good first impression for Worthington guests
WORTHINGTON -- Many Worthington residents may not visit or utilize Worthington Municipal Airport, but that doesn't mean the facility isn't an important asset to the community.
The airport, located on the northern edge of the city just off U.S. 59, has seen significant upgrading over the past several years. The city has an agreement with Integrity Aviation, which serves as the facility's fixed base operator. The airport also hosts the business of Arnt Aerial Spraying, which conducts a variety of ag-related operations -- primarily spraying of corn and soybeans during the growing season -- around the region.
"Integrity Aviation was contacted by the city to manage the airport," explained Cameron Johnson, who serves as the airport manager for Integrity. "I'm the one who's out there most of the time seeing what's going on."
As part of his duties, Johnson is a jack-of-alltrades. He works as an aircraft mechanic and a pilot, doing flight training as well as some charter and corporate flights.
"I also wash the floors and clean the toilets," he added with a chuckle.
"It's often a public misconception that the airport is kind of a playground for the rich," Johnson said. "Oftentimes, the public doesn't recognize the asset an airport is to a community. I think that's why we want the public to be really aware of what they have there."
The airport has come on handy this winter from a medical standpoint, as it has allowed for emergency transportation in a way in which other area airports are unable. Jim Laffrenzen, Worthington's director of public works and the city's point person for the facility, recalled one particular set of such circumstances.
"We got a call through the local police department that there was a request for a care flight to come in to Worthington, since we're the only airport available because of the weather conditions," Laffrenzen related. "We opened our airport so they could transport the patient, who needed a heart operation, from Windom to Worthington. I think it's important that we can accommodate these types of emergency critical flights, where other airports can't do it."
"Our airport is instrument-rated; it's the type of instrument approach that gets airplanes to land here in inclement weather," Johnson said, estimating the airport may get about three such uses per month. "So often that's when we see accidents happen, when the weather's bad, so the airport is often for a medical standpoint then."
Worthington's airport is also important from a business standpoint, as well, and statistics cited by Johnson show the airport is being used frequently by corporate visitors.
"So often nowadays, businesses rely on air transportation, and they like to use the local airport if they're coming to Worthington for business," Johnson said. "About a year ago, we had an entrepreneur come through and he said, 'This is what we look for in a community; we want an easy in and out.' We have the interstate, which is great, but businesses want the ability to get in and get out. Three years ago, we did the terminal remodel out there -- the city guys did most of the work out there on the remodel, and I don't think many of them realized how much traffic there is out there."
That traffic is measured by VFR (visual flight reference) and IFR (instrument flight reference) statistics. VFR numbers are more difficult to track, said Johnson, as no flight plans or records are involved; it's simply people flying their aircraft into the airport. IFR numbers account for flights that have a flight plan and communication with air-traffic control.
"Most business traffic that comes into Worthington is probably going to come in IFR, because usually it's a charter or you're operating for an organization that wants you to give an IFR flight plan," Johnson stated. "In 2007, there were 379 IFR operations. In 2008 it was 360; in 2009, 276 ... that was probably because of the economy a little bit.
"MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) said that for an average airport,you take your IFR operations and multiply that times 1.5 to get your total number of VFR." he went on. "Then you take your VFR and IFR and add them together to get your total number of operations."
The Worthington airport's good numbers are buoyed not just by being instrument-rated. The runway length helps, too.
"Our longest runway is 5,500 feet, and then we have a 4,200-foot runway that we call a cross-wind runway, or a second runway," Johnson said. "The next closest to have comparable length runways is Spencer (Iowa), and Marshall ... and then you get out toward Fairmont. You've got airports in Jackson, Pipestone and Luverne. ... They all have runways, but they're not large enough for the larger business traffic."
Those runways have been improved dramatically thanks to significant federal and state grant assistance, Worthington City Engineer Dwayne Haffield noted. In federal dollars alone, Worthington Municipal Airport has received $11 million in funding since 1998.
"The major runway and taxiway projects that have been done in the last 20 years have been done with nearly all federal money," Haffield said. "The current funding is 95 percent federal, leaving 5 percent local -- that's for the major projects. MnDOT will participate at 70/30 for some of the minor improvements, such as when we got a new access road, or when we brought sewer and water out to the facility.
"Since 1997 or so, we've actually had the primary runway reconstructed, its taxiways, the secondary cross-wind runway and its taxiways and the majority of the main apron," Haffield added. "When we get that other part of the apron done, it's new infrastructure."
Haffield said the city continues to regularly seek funding to make such further airport improvements.
"We submit to the state annually a five-year capital improvements program (CIP), and the state works with federal staff and they begin to program projects they can fund," he said. "Then they can announce what projects they can get into their CIP, and then there's a formal process from there."
"It's quite an investment that the federal and state government is making for us to have our airport," Johnson added. "All the city has to come up with 5 percent on (most of) these projects."
Another probable lure into Worthington's airport are fuel prices that appeal to fliers -- and a few other accoutrements.
"I try to keep gas prices on the lower end of average," Johnson said. "Also, to encourage other people to stop here and visit Worthington, the city provides a car out here to bring people into town. Another thing is that after the city remodeled the airport, it's a very nice place to come. Business clients will fly in and meet their customers out here.
"The airport is the gateway to your community to whoever flies in," Johnson stressed, "and whether we like to say it or not, first impressions count. The biggest thing for us is customer service. We really cater to the people that pass through. Any business clients we get, when they land and they're here overnight, we can put their planes in a hangar because we have hangar space. We put it in ... and they call me and say when they want to leave, and we pull it out and have it ready to go for them."
Laffrenzen said the city currently leases out 20 individual "T hangars," and there is plan to construct more as the need arises should additional funding from the state be secured. In fact, when all is said done, he added, the airport costs city taxpayers virtually nothing.
"When we get into the dayto-day operations, like the plowing of the snow, the cutting of the grass, we've been fortunate in the last few years with the revenue derived through our ag land rental out there and our revenue from the hangars. ... We take our revenues that we derive from the airport, along with the funding that we get from the State of Minnesota, which is about $75,000 per year, and between all those, the local tax levy dollars for day-to-day operation is basically at zero," Laffrenzen said. "I think that's where it sometimes gets confusing. We talk about the reconstruction of the runway, for example, there are some local tax dollars, but with the local day-to-day operations, it's not. The day-to-day is basically self-supporting."
Even the city's equipment purchases for the airport get outside financial assistance, Laffrenzen said. Equipment involved with day-to-day operations -- such as snowblowers, snowplows and mowers -- are funded 60 percent by the state, compared to only 40 percent by the city. And the city tries to keep purchases to a minimum -- the snowblower, Laffrenzen noted, is replaced just once every 30 years.
"The big thing about the airport is that citizens have an important and beneficial facility in their community that is of very little cost to them," he concluded.