Control of the Palo Alto Airport on Embarcadero Road will soon change hands from Santa Clara County to the City of Palo Alto, a shift that association Vice President Bob Lenox said is welcome. Lenox said he feels the county doesn't give the airport the management it deserves compared to the other airports it runs.
It's the "stepchild of the county," Lenox said. "The city has a much clearer vision and vested interest in seeing the airport operated and run well."
Santa Clara County runs three airports: Palo Alto, Reid-Hillview in San Jose and South County Airport in San Martin. As the Palo Alto Airport is managed now, it can become mired in the financial and legal difficulties of the other two.
A lawsuit between the South County Airport and Garlic City Skydivers, a skydiving operation seeking a permit to operate out of the airport, is a prime example, Lenox said. It may prevent the Palo Alto Airport from getting a $150,000 grant, which he says is sorely needed to repair the dips and potholes in its aging pavement.
"Reliever airports" like Palo Alto receive entitlement grants from the FAA because they play an important role in reducing congestion at larger nearby airports, such as San Francisco International.
But the South County Airport's skydiving lawsuit has put the county in noncompliance with the FAA, which makes Palo Alto, as part of the county system, ineligible for the grant.
"It's frustrating to be that close and lose it at the last minute," said Andy Swanson, the airport manager the City of Palo Alto hired in April.
Lenox said there's a sliver of hope for recouping the $150,000, after the county stated Sept. 10 it would not appeal the skydiving lawsuit. Although it did so weeks after the drop-dead deadline for getting the grant, he said he hopes the FAA might make an exception because of the airport's acute need for the funds.
In any case, Lenox sees the airport's transfer as a good thing. The airport will have one less government agency with which to coordinate.
"When the City Council elected to have the county manage the airport in 1967 their intent was that the county had expertise and there was an economy of scale there," Lenox said. "There are advantages to an economy of scale; we just haven't seen it."
Carl Honaker, Santa Clara County director of airports, said many airport systems in the country have had success with expanding the management system for their airports.
However, local control is always best when it comes to satisfying the demands of the consumer, he said.
"It's different when you're managing someone else's airport. When you manage an airport via a lease where the community has a lot of say, your hands get tied a lot," he said, using as examples city caps on how many take-offs and landings the airport could have per day, to what extent the airport could expand and how many outside services could operate there.
Swanson said he sees the city's smaller scale as an advantage.
"One of the key things is where the airport is placed — in the Public Works Department," he said. "It's where it should be because of what Public Works does — it taps into many operations, facilities, staff and techniques like pavement engineering."
Eric Peterson, assistant director of airports for Santa Clara County, said he thinks the transfer will work out well for both the city and the county, although there will be some challenges related to the two county employees working at the airport and the loss of certain revenue.
"It's going to be different. I wouldn't say easier or harder, just different," he said. "They've got to learn to run an airport; we've got to learn to go from three to two."
Still, even though the Palo Alto Airport is the third busiest in northern California, with around 180,000 operations (a plane landing or take-off) per year, Peterson said the county has spent more on maintenance than the revenue it's taken in.
That may be why the county seems eager to part with the airport, handing over control three years before its 50-year lease is up in 2017.
As the county's contract with the airport expires, so too will the airport's contracts with its fixed-base operators, which provide services such as renting out hangar space. Lenox said these contracts are now worth far more than the prices at which they were negotiated decades ago. Swanson said the renegotiation or resale of the contracts could be a financial boon for the city.
"The ability to update and do a complete evaluation of the facilities and whether they're at fair-market value will definitely be an advantage to the city and its ability to support the airport enterprise fund," he said.
Swanson, who has worked in airport administration for a decade, said he expects the transition to the city to be finalized by July but it could be as late as the end of next year.
"Right now everything is moving well, but there are a lot of moving pieces with the transfer," he said. "Nothing unexpected has happened yet."
The major hurdle for the city's takeover is the completion of an Airport Layout Plan, a required document for the FAA that reports existing facilities and identifies future plans and developments.
Swanson said the layout plan will be part of the city's airport master plan, which will be finished once the transition is complete. It will include a five-year capital-improvement project work plan, recommendations for staffing and an evaluation of contracts with the airport's tenants and lessees, according to the city's 2014 budget. A contractor will complete the plan for $75,000.
Depending on how many challenges come up during the transition, this year's Airport Day on Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. could be the airport's last while it's under county control. Swanson said the public event featuring tours, kids events and food is a great opportunity to learn more about the small but busy airport in the Baylands.
"Sure, it's seeing the planes and the airport but it's also about learning about fire, emergency services, Stanford Life Flight and all the other programs the airport is involved in," he said. "It plays a huge role in letting the community see what the airport is all about." •