The Palo Alto Airport was for years the busiest general aviation center in the country.
These days, a mannequin staffs a self-service gas depot while a cat sunbathes in front of an empty flight school classroom. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the airport is nearly at a standstill.
Although stringent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules imposed in the wake of the attacks were partially lifted at the end of September, take-offs and landings have dropped by half, strangling businesses that depend on airport clientele.
"General aviation is dead, at least in Palo Alto," said Peter Carpenter, chairman of the Airport's Joint Community Relations Commission, which deals with airport issues and their impact on the community. "It's a different world at the airport now."
The slowdown hurts more than businesses serving pilots and travelers. The airport is also a transit hub for local companies and commuters.
Pat Roy, general manager of Roy-Aero Enterprises at Palo Alto Airport, said "The public has a notion that this airport is for recreational pilots. That is simply not true. This is a working airfield. People use these aircraft for business and for commuting back and forth to work.
"We're all hurting."
Monthly payroll generated from airport businesses used to be about $200,000. "Last month's revenue could be about one-quarter to one-third of that," Carpenter said.
The Abundant Air restaurant lost $11,000 last month, typifying the pain felt by the airport's businesses.
Don Lara, who pumps fuel for Exxon at the airport, has had plenty of time on his hands lately. "Before all this, I'd be refueling 40 planes in an eight-hour shift," he said. "In the five hours I've been here today, I've done only 10 airplanes."
The FAA rules imposed in the wake of the terrorist attacks restrict the flying privileges of about 70 percent of the pilots who use the airport. Under the new guidelines, only three types of flights are allowed at the Palo Alto Airport:
* Instrument-rated pilots who file flight plans.
* Certified flight instructors taking out students.
* Student pilots supervised by certified flight instructors.
That shuts out virtually all pilots flying by sight alone -- the largest group using the airport.
Carpenter calls the new rules "perplexing."
"A student pilot can fly from Palo Alto to the San Carlos Airport, for example, and take his flight test with his examiner. If, however, he passes that test, he cannot fly back in to Palo Alto because he's now become a licensed pilot," he said.
The world's largest non-profit flying club, which is located at Palo Alto Airport, is also in trouble. "Flying in the Bay Area will never be the same again," David Fry, West Valley Flying Club general manager, said.
The club, which began in 1976, has got to get some relief or "we're going to die," Fry said.
Fry, who retired last year from the military after 32 years of Air Force service, does not mince words: "Let's put it this way. I just got (the club's) financials for last month. They suck pond water.
"But there's only a limited amount we can do. Our rent won't go down. After all, this is Palo Alto. So we've got to make some changes and they've got to be long-term."
Fry anticipates tripling club membership fees and increasing monthly dues by 20 percent. Current costs are $150 for membership and $40 a month.
The Airport Shoppe, a retail business that sells aviation-related items and is located at the airport, has seen a decline. "Restricted airspace means no business. But I'm not hurting nearly as bad as others, since everybody's going for their instrument ratings now shop manager," Steve Williams said. "So they come in here to buy software and books to prepare for the test."
The store's current bestseller, at a price of $269, is software that comes with a flight simulator to train pilots for instrument flying. "I've been restocking quite a bit on these," Williams said.
Sloan Aviation, which repairs airplanes and is the dealer for Piper Aircraft, was initially hurt by the events of Sept. 11, but is now seeing a recovery. Owner Victor Sloan, who has two 20,000-square-foot hangars at the airport, said, "Business is coming back."
"Aircraft service has actually picked up. People realize now how important it is to take care and maintain their airplanes and they have more time to do that now," he said.
E-mail Daryl Savage at email@example.com