Frederick airport businesses navigate recession
Executives foresee pickup with recovery, new control tower
Businesses that operate at Frederick Municipal Airport say they see bluer skies ahead as the country continues to emerge from the Great Recession.
Their prospects could be further brightened by a new $5.3 million air traffic control, with construction expected to begin next month and completion planned within 18 months.
The recession hit most companies at the airport, including Advanced Helicopter Concepts, whose business "basically flatlined" after previous growth, according to chief flight instructor Ryan S. Dale.
Dale said 75 percent of his company's revenues involve flight instruction, with the rest from aerial survey services. Advanced Helicopter has seen "a bit of an upswing in students," Dale said, due to a partnership with the Community College of Baltimore County for students in its aviation program.
The company will provide flight training for the students while they complete coursework at the college, he said.
Advanced Helicopter did not lay off any of its 19 employees as a result of the recession and recently hired a new flight instructor and is looking to fill an administrative position, according to Dale.
The recession "kept us in a struggle but we're holding our own," said Richard Crouse of his business, Richard Crouse & Associates. The company provides aerial surveying services primarily for the East Coast, but has traveled as far as the Virgin Islands and Canada and also has a location in Spartanburg, S.C., according to Crouse.
Annual revenues of about $5 million "have been pretty much flat" during the recession, Crouse said. His company with 20 employees, four planes and a helicopter has a mix of clients, he said, including federal agencies and those who request surveying services for projects such as land development and quarries.
"It's a pretty transparent industry," Crouse said of land surveying. "It all starts with a map."
Patrick McFadden saw a noticeable drop in aircraft sales at his business, which he attributes to the entire aviation sales industry slumping.
McFadden is owner and president of Frederick Flight Center, which offers flight instruction and full maintenance of airplanes, and also sells Cessna and Cirrus-style aircraft. McFadden noted that despite the initial dip in sales, he has "seen things getting back to where we before" over the last six months and added that he and other airport business owners are "keeping our fingers crossed."
McFadden typically has an inventory of more than 20 planes but said he now has 17 planes for sale. The top-selling aircraft in the U.S. has typically been the Cessna 172, which costs about $300,000, he said.
"Everyone was down 25 [percent] to 30 percent," McFadden said of plane sales, while his flight training business has been off 20 percent "but [is] now starting to pick up again."
Frederick Flight Center's maintenance services did increase during the recession, McFadden said.
General aviation for recreational or other personal reasons are typically paid for with discretionary dollars, which the recession crimped, said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the 410,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, whose headquarters are at the Frederick airport.
Corporate aviation more attractive'
Dancy and the other airport business owners agree that while the construction of the new air traffic control tower at the airport probably won't affect their companies economically, it will bring a much-needed dose of safety.
"There have been a number of near-misses over the last year," Dale said. "[The tower] will make the airport environment more safe [and] safer to train at and fly into."
Because the airport can be a factor in businesses deciding if they should relocate to Frederick, construction of the control tower "can make corporate aviation more attractive," according to Dancy.
Airport manager Kevin Daugherty said airport officials project an increase in operations through 2025 because of the new tower, which will create 80 temporary construction jobs and eight permanent, operational jobs. Construction will be handled by Warner Construction of Frederick.
The airport is home to a "very diverse mix of aircraft," Daugherty said, ranging from corporate jets to hot air balloons. It handles about 130,000 flights annually.
"We want to increase safety and I'm very excited to get this project started," he said.
The project was boosted by U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville and Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore, who said in a joint statement last week that the tower will be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"Because of its close proximity to Washington, D.C., Camp David and Fort Detrick, the Frederick Municipal Airport has become an important hub in our state's transportation network," Cardin said. "The airport has grown in recent years to handle a wide variety of different types of aircraft and I strongly support an air traffic control tower at Frederick to ensure the safety of passengers and aircraft and to ensure the continued economic growth of the entire region."
Mikulski said in the statement that the airport is an "economic engine for the region and it's one of my top priorities."
"I will continue to fight for the [airport]," Mikulski said. "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs in Maryland's communities."