Board Moves to Make Airport More Competitive

The Santa Maria Public Airport District Board of Directors likes having the U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker base here and showed it Thursday when it cut the tanker landing fees in half.

The board amended its contract with the Central Coast Jet Center to include collection of landing fees in its monthly billing to the Forest Service, and it lowered those fees from $1 per 1,000 pounds to 50 cents per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight.

The Forest Service pays three fees to utilize the Santa Maria Public Airport: landing fees, ramp handling fees and fuel flowage fees.

Since the base relocated from the Santa Barbara Airport in 2007, the Forest Service paid ramp and fuel fees to Jet Center and paid landing fees to the airport district. The contract amendment means the Jet Center will handle all Forest Service billing, and it will forward landing fees on to the district.

The tanker base has operated at the Santa Maria Airport since 2007. From 2009 to 2011, the base was downgraded to call-when-needed status by the Los Padres National Forest. A new contract signed in November 2011 upgraded the base to full-time during the fire season.

The reduction covers all emergency service aircraft that land here: Cal Fire, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Doug Butler, general manager of the Jet Center, said there have been times since the base reopened when Cal Fire planes working on fires near Vandenberg Air Force Base would bypass Santa Maria and use the Paso Robles Airport to refill. He said many airports don’t charge emergency services landing fees and the move by the board would improve the situation.

“We’re not talking huge dollars here,” Butler said of the fees. “A lot of it is perception.  “We’ve been through a lot with that tanker base, and it’s fully open and operational.”  Butler complimented the airport board and former U.S. Representative Elton Gallegly with getting the base back to full-time service.

The move was made to make the airport more competitive with other airports in the region utilized by air tankers, Director Carl Engel said.

The board also amended the lease with the Cessna Pilots Association. Construction surrounding the airport’s fire station have prevented the association from moving into the building at 3409 Corsair, so the district moved to postpone its rent start date until May 1.

3/1/13  By Brian Bullock / Staff Writer /