William H. Morse State Airport:Paving the runway for a private firm

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BENNINGTON — Over the past several months, the William H. Morse State Airport has been operating under a nonprofit organization that hopes to expand activities and services and create the business conditions needed for a for-profit operator to take over in the future.

General Manager John Likakis said the Bennington Airport Development Corp. has replaced the series of for-profit aviation firms that have filled the role of fixed-base operator at the airport off Walloomsac Road in Bennington.

He said economic conditions dating to the Great Recession eventually rendered the operation unsustainable for a for-profit FBO.

"It was just not viable," he said. "There was not enough activity at the airport."
However, Likakis said the nonprofit, which has a contract with the state to oversee and promote airport operations, has made strides since assuming management duties in May.

Likakis said the nonprofit group's board has a two-year contract through the state Agency of Transportation. The group, he said, is focused on luring aviation-related organizations and groups to schedule activities at Morse Airport, on methods of generating additional income from hanger space, plane tie-down rentals, fuel sales and other sources, and on events to bring students and the general public out to the facility.

Likakis said the nonprofit was set up in late 2015 and this year concluded "a unique operating agreement with the state, and that agreement was crafted through the efforts of the principals of BADC working with Vermont aeronautics administrator Guy Rouelle and the state secretary of transportation."

He said the leadership team for the nonprofit organization includes President Charles Suss and Treasurer David Corey, with Likakis acting as corporate secretary.

BADC also works with Christopher Beitzel, airport manager at Rutland-Southern Vermont Regional Airport, concerning activities requiring coordination with the state, such as runway improvement or other projects, or regulatory aspects of aviation for which the state shares or is solely responsible.

Concerning the 3,704-foot airport runway, the facility's Airport Committee said Thursday that members expect to receive an update from state officials at their November meeting. They expected to hear more details of a planned federal- and state-funded runway resurfacing and enhancement project.

Among those using the Bennington airport are private pilots, some of whom make use of hanger space or plane tie-downs there, and charter businesses, which bring in corporate officials, tourists or other visitors to the area. A number of clubs and organizations also schedule activities there.

Likakis said one recent expansion of services to increase activity and revenue was having the airport staffed on weekends. A lack of coverage those days had been a factor in a decline in use by commercial groups, he said, adding that, for instance, a group of skiers heading for Mt. Snow is expected to arrive this weekend.

Likakis, who was the safety director with AirNow, the former freight delivery business and longtime FBO at the airport, and has been a licensed pilot for 35 years, and Morse Airport Manager Rob Luther staff the terminal building. That structure, along with an adjacent large hanger, is owned by the state and is being leased to the nonprofit operator.

The facility is classified as an "uncontrolled airport," Likakis said, meaning it can be used by any pilot or business that complies with Federal Aviation Administration and state regulations. The type of aircraft that could land is restricted to small planes, small jets, and medium turbo prop crafts, such as the Beech King Air models used for charter flights.

The recession of 2008-09 led to an era of declining activity at the airport, Likakis said. AirNow, which also lost some major shipping contracts as businesses, such as United Parcel Service, began to develop alternative transport options, eventually ceased operations and the firm dissolved in early 2011.

Likakis noted that at one time the local air freight service, which was owned by Corey, generated a payroll of $1.5 million within the Bennington area, and the hope is to bring back some of that type of business activity.
Corey said about 50 people once were employed at the airport. "I don't think that will happen again," he said, "but we could get private [businesses] in here; that's easily doable."
Other than ideas to generate additional revenue for the airport, Likakis said aviation-oriented clubs and organizations are being encouraged to meet or schedule activities there, and he is pursuing educational programs in cooperation with local schools.

In November, a program for local students is planned to introduce them to drones in cooperation with the Eagle's Eye Flyers FPV drone club, in which Likakis, Airport Committee member like Leik Myrabo and other local enthusiasts are active. The group has clubhouse space at the airport.

In addition, Myrabo, who is president of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, whose members construct or work on their own aircraft and have space in the state hanger, said during the committee meeting this week that he is planning an event in 2017 for manned, battery-powered craft.

Among other organizations active at the airport are the Civil Air Patrol, which recently approved Squadron 034, based in Bennington.

Flight school operations also are targeted for expansion in Bennington, Likakis said. He and Luther are updating or acquiring the certificates needed to provide "ground school" instruction at the airport, which covers the textbook side of aviation to compliment time spent in the air with a flight instructor.

Teamflys and owner Trevor Gilman, based at the Harriman and West Airport in North Adams, Mass., have been providing flight lessons for local pilots-in-training, Likakis said, and the goal is to sign up enough students to schedule multiple sessions at least one day per week in Bennington.

Likakis said he, Corey and other local enthusiasts developed the idea of forming a nonprofit, 501(c) 3 organization to temporarily operate the airport after it became apparent that another private firm would not step forward after the most recent departed in 2014. The goal, he said, is to hand off the FBO duties to a private company after demonstrating how it can be financially viable.

Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 114.


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