Airport board flying in the wrong direction

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Rutan

While it may not be obvious to some, the Coeur d’Alene Airport is an important asset to our community, bringing in over $130 million of economic activity while providing a portal to the world.

Starting in 1974 for 37 years, I leased land on the Mojave, Calif., airport, starting from a derelict wooden World War II building and growing to multiple facilities in which I and my companies invested more than $200 million of leasehold improvements: https://bit.ly/2OQuouA

Throughout the entire time, the Mojave Airport District was profitable and I worked with them to build a great airport, even a historic airport, the world’s only licensed, active FAA Commercial Spaceport. At no time did I feel attacked by airport management and they never tried to steal our substantial airport investments. My businesses became the largest employer in East Kern County. The airport and local community benefited like never before.

As a new owner of a hangar on the Cd’A airport, I attended the 5 p.m., 15 August, Airport Advisory Board meeting at the airport office and I was shocked. I am compelled to share my feelings in writing.

These comments come from someone (me) who opposes the airport director’s attempts to modify my airport land lease by adding unacceptable changes. I have missed several previous meetings, so I came to this one somewhat cold, not knowing what to expect.

The meeting room looked like this:

On the north side were about 35 customers of the airport — public people like me who hold airport land leases and had built businesses or hangars on their leased land. They looked to me like informed, ethical, lovers of aviation, intelligent citizens who are customers of the airport, likely providing most of the airport’s revenue. Also, they all seemed to want to work together as a team with the airport management. I had previously met about 25 percent of them and I share their desire to have a safe, convenient place to purchase fuel in a competitive environment and to store and fly our airplanes.

The south side of the room (all facing north) had no airport customers. They looked to me like airport employees, maybe a county commissioner or two and others I did not recognize. Seven people were seated at a U-shaped table facing the customers on the north half. I believe they must have been the Airport Advisory Board of Directors, since scattered on the table were some name cards.

What I observed:

The public (mostly hangar owners like me) responded politely and completely when asked to state on the record our names and airport affiliation. The meeting started without a similar courtesy from those facing us. So I stood up and asked those on the south half of the room to also identify themselves and their affiliations. I heard something very different from many of them: hostility, offense for being asked, failure to identify affiliation. This including one who defiantly flashed his name card while saying nothing. From an observer’s standpoint they sent a message that the rest of the meeting would likely not proceed in a positive way. I felt threatened already.

More than one of them noted that since they had received their latest updated version of the ‘Rules and Regulation’ document only 24 minutes before the 5 p.m. meeting, stating that they did not know what was in it and, for that reason, they would not discuss the rules revisions (the sole reason those on the north side of the room were at the meeting!). Some of them also stated they would not allow public comments on the subject, in spite of an owner mentioning that public comment opportunities are mandated by the announced public Airport Advisory Board meeting. A decision was made and announced by, I think the chairman of the U-shaped table that the meeting would accomplish nothing more than what had already been presented — a reading of the recent firefighting aircraft statistics of KCOE runway use. Yes, we were told that the board would not reveal any of their recent rules update information at all. Also, some on the board outright refused to hear any public comment on rules, for at least another month.

To me this was shocking. Clearly, what seemed to be a majority of the total airport hangar and business owners (including Resort and Empire) were there on the north half of the room, expecting to get a rules update from airport management and expecting to present their comments for discussion. We were all now being directed to be mute by a small group of non-pilots (i.e. most of the Airport Advisory Board). It was a clear message of ‘dictatorship’ rather than an attitude of ‘let’s discuss and negotiate something together that works best for the airport and for its customers.’

Then, the unexpected (by me) happened. While the U-shaped table folk were confirming their decision to end the meeting, one of them noted that it might not be legal or proper to throw the public out without hearing them. After some heated discussion some of them reluctantly agreed to let the public present comments.

Of course, a reasonable person would expect that what should follow would be a full hearing of the public comments, so the Airport Advisory Board could record them in the meeting minutes.

Now, for the real shocking part — During the public comment period, three of those at the U-shaped table, including the airport director, continuously interrupted the public commentary, at times preventing them to continue. They even quoted several details from the hidden latest draft rules, a document that they had earlier implied had not been read. Now, I knew I had been lied to and had to wonder why.

The public comments time thus turned into a fight. Not even a discussion of possible compromise of rules, but mainly many statements (some untrue) that ‘You owners have to do this because its the FAA Law.’ Of course, open discussion is usually good, but this fight was clearly a negotiation with one side refusing to compromise.

The business and hangar owners’ main concern is that the proposed rules amount to the airport outright stealing their property at lease end, making it impossible for current facility and hangar owners to sell their investments. However, the airport director gave no indication that they would accept an alternate solution.

Also, they seemed to be totally unaware of the unintended consequences of removing the benefits of free-markets to grow the airport. Airports and surrounding communities grow and succeed not because they are run like socialist countries, but because they allow investment by private businesses. That investment results in construction jobs to build facilities and then creates jobs and taxpayers, benefiting the entire community.

It might be beneficial to access what the Coeur d’Alene Airport might look like today if in the past it were run by those with the same attitude as those who wrote their ‘Rules’ proposal. My experience is that if those things had been earlier enforced, we now might not have the hangars and businesses that offer jobs, tax revenue and the airport’s source of income. Instead of this community-benefiting airport that exists now, we might have two or three small airports like the Sandpoint airport to service folks like those sitting in the north side of the meeting room.

Walking to my car at 7:30 p.m., I felt that I had been lied to. I felt that the airport management was indeed intending to steal my property. And, worse yet was on a path that would depress the future potential of the airport and the greater community, rather than allow all the benefits of growth.

All successful businesses understand that satisfying the customer is a fundamental component success. The airport administrators would be wise to shift from an adversarial position to one of cooperation with their primary customers. Together we can develop a partnership that will ensure continued prosperity for all.

•••

Burt Rutan is a Coeur d’Alene resident.

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