Palo Alto airport takeover faces major challenges

City Council prepares to shift airport operations from Santa Clara County

Palo Alto's effort to take over operations of the Palo Alto Airport from Santa Clara County is expected to get a lift tonight (Monday, Dec. 6), when the City Council considers opening a new city fund to pay for airport management.

But a new city staff report warns that there will be serious challenges in the city management of the airport, and even working on the transition will stretch staff resources and divert them from other city priorities.

The airport, located in the Palo Alto baylands area, has been managed by the county since 1967 under a 50-year lease. County officials have indicated in recent years that they will not be renewing the contract.

On Oct. 19, the council's Finance Committee recommended that Palo Alto take over airport management before the agreement with the county expires in 2017.

The committee reached its conclusion after receiving a report from consulting firm R.A. Wiedemann & Associates indicating that the airport could bring the city a hefty long-term profit -- though this profit would have to be reinvested back into the airport. The report also indicated that it would be very difficult for the city to close the facility because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

But running the airport locally will also entail many challenges, according to a new report from the city's Administrative Services Department. The report acknowledges city doesn't have the expertise to manage the airport, or to even hire the personnel to operate the facility.

Staff also remains uncertain about whether the city should manage all airport operations, hire a third party to operate the facility, or manage a fixed-base operator.

The airport takeover presents the city's Public Works Department with another major project at a time when the department is stretched thin because of vacancies and other time-consuming projects, such as library renovations and the restructuring of the city's garbage-rate system, the report states.

Joe Saccio, deputy director of the Administrative Services Department, wrote in the report that the airport transition will require "considerable in-house staff time," which would otherwise be devoted to existing priorities.

The council will also consider tonight whether to contribute $300,000 into a new Airport Enterprise Fund to pay for consultants and legal expenses relating to the transition.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. with a closed-session to discuss a lawsuit from Janet Pierce stemming from a July 2008 bike accident on Bryant Street. Pierce filed a lawsuit in January claiming she fell off her bike as she was riding over metal plates that the city installed to cover holes in the ground.

The regular meeting will begin after the closed session in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. (View the agenda)

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Like this comment
Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 6, 2010 at 7:58 am

There are ways around the Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The city may have to reimburse the FAA, but would still come out way ahead. We need to get rid of this obscene white elephant, and we shouldn't wait until 2017.

Like this comment
Posted by all for one
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2010 at 8:33 am

Yes, it is possible to close the airport:
Web Link
"The deactivation of an airport is not impossible, but it is tricky and complex due to the fact that most airports have accepted federal funds to keep the airport operating safely. This post should not be used as an exhaustive “how-to” on closing an airport, and it would behoove airport sponsors contemplating closure to consult with an attorney who is cognizant of the complex and often confusing regulations surrounding airports and grant assurances."

2 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2010 at 9:16 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This is the input I provided City Council. My hunch is this arrangement is already baked, and the City will take over the airport. This is a very risk economic course. I don't have too much skin in the game here, other than potentially watching our taxes further strained to subsidize the airport. I have learned that given signing contracts with the FAA, the airport's continued existence is a given. It is just who will pay the bill -- and airports have nearly bankrupted communities recently.

My own correspondence to Council is:

Council Members,

There are many many Palo Altans that while silent, have expressed their opposition or at least hesitation to the City taking over the airport. I accept that the airport is here given FAA dictates, but I believe the City taking over operations is an ominous financial move in this terrible economic climate. From the business plan I recall three findings that should warn the city of this step: 1) the County wants out because it has tried to make the airport viable, and has failed, 2) airport economic activity lags any economic recovery, and 3) the tenants are not loyal, and would likely move to other airports if Palo Alto tried to raise rates on tenants.

The City should dedicate legal fees to see if the County would be obligated to stay as the operator. The airport benefits the County - not Palo Alto. The County has been the historic operator, and Palo Alto the landowner. We are getting taken by the State as the seek to get Palo Alto to put monies into the airport.

Obviously, I stumbled into the airport issues by inadvertently suggesting we use vacant land for our compost system. It was through this encounter that I discovered how the airport planning process is seemingly conducted entirely by proponents and vendors. There is no data the county or city will supply that states just how many Palo Altans use the airport. My hunch is 10 percent of the tie-downs are by Palo Altans, and that 90 percent are from outside the City.

What disappoints the most in this process is the lack of interest in clarifying or developing positions that would maintain the County's continued operation. They are more than a lessee, they are a co-signer on all obligations to the FAA. They are playing a smarter game than Palo Alto, as the County will yield most benefits (given that operations benefit 90% outside the city) - yet they are finding a "rich" city to pay the bill.

I urge the City Council to not take over the airport and take steps to assure that the County maintains and operates it.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 6, 2010 at 10:18 am

The idea to take over the Palo Alto Airport is totally irresponsible on the part of those inside the City government that are promoting this idea (presumably certain City Council members, current and former). The finances of an airport are both simple, and complicated, at the same time. There are only so many expenditures (under normal conditions), but there are many "hidden" costs, which easily disappear in the kind of loose accounting that goes on in City governments. For instance, the City Auditor tried to obtain all of the costs from the County a few years back, and found that the County could not provide a reliable accounting of the costs--for a number of reasons. Then it turns out that there have been expenditures laid out by the City to mitigate environmental damage that goes back decades. The County refused to pay for the work, as they claimed it occurred prior to their tenancy as airport operator. So, the taxpayers of Palo Alto were forced to pick up the tab:

City of Palo Alto Pays $300,000 To Clean Oil Spills:
Web Link

The Palo Alto Auditor did not include this $300,000 in the cost-to-operate numbers she was developing, so this $300,000 has just "disappeared" from the calculations that should be used to show the true cost of operating this facility.

The pilots have shown themselves to be incredibly "stingy" in their willingness to pay for the costs of this facility. Back in 1989, when the County wanted to increase the "tie-down" fees charged those storing aircraft at the various airports in order to refurbish the facilities, they (the pilots) became outraged, and sued the County. The County caved, giving the pilots a tool to threaten any airport operator in the future that attempts to recover more of the costs of operating this facility than they have in the past.

The following link contains a few articles from the San Jose Mercury that reminds us of the pilots greed:

Pilots Sue County Over Increased Fees:
Web Link

The City has spent $150K on a review of the business plan recently, and now is proposing to spend $300K to "start a fund". This brings the additional, but most likely unaccounted-for-costs-of-the-airport to another $750K. This is money that is coming out of the taxpayers' pockets, who receive nothing in benefits from this facility.

The cost issues also include money that comes from the Federal Government. The tower operations are currently paid for by the FAA, which doubtless adds $1M-$2M a year to the operational costs. As it were, this money also disappears, since it does not have to be accounted for by the County (as the airport operator). All of the major repairs have been paid for by the Federal Taxpayers, and if the City were to take over this facility, it would have to assume the potential debt required to repay the FAA should the airport be closed down by the City in the future. Unless this potential debt is demonstrated on the "books", then something akin to fraud will be going on by those claiming that the City can "turn a profit" (in 30 years).

There is no one on the City Council that is the president of a large business, who might understand "big system" financial issues. Most just rubber stamp whatever proposal that comes also--demonstrating little understanding of the underlying issues.

There are many other issues, such as the safety of those living within five miles of this airport. Too, too, many issues to deal with in a single posting.

This is another terrible idea, demonstrating how poorly managed the City of Palo Alto really is.

Like this comment
Posted by K
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2010 at 10:53 am

Whoever is in control of the airport, PLEASE just make it safe for those that live under your flight path.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

The bottom line:

If the local pilots don't want to pay the " tie down " and hanger fees...along with a use fee for take-offs and landings, then these pilots need to move their equipment south to Moffett Field. The SFBA is overbuilt when it comes to airports, anyway. The City of Palo Alto is not smart when it comes to managing a FBO airport in a crowded area.

The takeoff patterns should be over the Bay itself. If we can't require this, then this airport will never meet all the reasons for a city airport in the first place.

What happened in CO:

DIA cost Denver MANY $$$ and had overruns. There are plenty of FBO airports around the Denver Metro area and they are in SAFE, UNCROWDED AREAS which don't affect non-flyers ( most of the rest of the citizens ). They continue to operate with no " give-away " perks for the GA public. You fly-YOU pay!

Back in the SFBA, the only areas that could be considered " safe " are ditching in the Bay or crashing into the mountains...too much population density dictate not using anywhere else, as the recent EPA shows.


Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 6, 2010 at 11:24 am

So, if the City takes back the airport and there are more unforeseen crashes into the local neighborhood; presumably the City will be responsible and sued. All I can say is they better get really good and no doubt expensive insurance to cover future crashes.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack Ellis
a resident of University South
on Dec 6, 2010 at 11:28 am

I am a part-time resident of Palo Alto, though my wife has owned property in the city for 30 years. Just as some folks rely on highways to get around, I rely on an airplane to get around.

Not long ago our full-time residence in Los Altos, where we could hear traffic on Foothill Expressway. We were exposed to noise, pollution and potential safety hazards. That's part and parcel of living in an urban area. No doubt many Palo Altans use the larger airports in San Jose and San Francisco for long-distance transportation, they use Caltrain for commuting up and down the Peninsula, and they use Foothill Expressway to get around as well.

All transportation infrastructure is a community nuisance, but it is also an essential part of modern living. Making them all go away is possible, but not really practical. If you're adamant about taking away the Palo Alto airport in order to remove a nuisance, then you need to be equally willing to surrender modern conveniences that annoy others.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I would be willing to shut down Palo Alto ONLY if we could be guaranteed full access to Moffett at rates no greater than at present.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 6, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Safety issues with any airport are difficult to discuss, because there are no simple "numbers" one can bring to the discussion. For instance, last night, in Roy, Utah, a small plane crashed into 3 (or 2) houses, which caught on fire. While no one was killed, there were 17 people in these houses, and it was only a miracle that no one died.

The following link is to an (AP) article that reports on the crash:

Pilot survives crash that clipped 2 Utah houses
Web Link

> The pilot offered no explanation for the crash, which is under
> investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, Ritchie said.

> "It was clearly pilot error," airport manager Ed Rich told the Salt
> Lake City Fox affiliate KSTU.

While only the NTSB will be able to able to assign blame, the costs of cleaning up this mess can be estimated by anyone. The following is a portion of an email to the Palo Alto City Council on this kind of unfortunate accident (presumably):
The Palo Alto City Council should be aware that small, General Aviation aircraft do crash into homes, causing great damage, and sometimes casualties (such as the February, 2010 East Palo Alto crash).

Perhaps the Council should consider the cost to those on the ground to:

1) Rebuild their homes
2) Rebuild their lives
3) Pay for possible hospitalization
4) Support service needed to learn to live with the fear of
small aircraft (and their pilots)

But what if there were no direct linkage between this crash and a local airport? Who should be responsible for paying for all this damage? Who should actually pay for these damages? While pilots should have insurance, how many airports actually require more than a token amount of accident/liability insurance. So, who will pay to make the victims of this pilot’s actions whole?

Given that homes here in Palo Alto routinely now “price out” at $1M, or more, this crash would run over $3M in damages, before the pilot’s damages are considered. Pain-and-suffering damages, and possibly other punitive damages will drive the cost of this accident upwards of $10M-$20M, no doubt.

If this pilot does not have enough insurance, or assets, then who will pay?

(It might be also interesting to know how much public money was spent fighting these fires, and providing post-accident analysis/cleanup. It’s heard to believe that these costs would be transferred from the public domain to the cost-of-operating the airport, and then onto the pilots/operators who use this facility.)

It makes no sense to not see the airport operator as a possible co-defendant in such cases. Whether clever lawyers can keep the airport operators out of the legal cross-hairs is always a question to be solved in the future. However, it is not so hard to discuss the morality of a City government operating an airport for profit, and then not requiring the pilots who use its facility to carry enough insurance to handle accidents in the $100M (per incident) range. If the municipal airport operator refuses to consider the safety of the residents living under the five-mile radius of the airport, then why should not the victims of these crashes expect to be able to sue the municipal operator for restitution?

Given that there are about 300,000 people living within the five mile "kill zone" around the Palo Alto Airport, one can only wonder how much thought the City Council will give to making sure their friends have a nice publicly-subsidized airport to use, and how safe the public will be that has to live underneath the flight patterns of this airport?

Like this comment
Posted by Norton Bell
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Another reason to close the airport is the damage to the environment that it causes. The noise disturbs wildlife including the endangered California Clapper Rail. Every few years a plane crashes into the tidal wetlands These accidents have caused spills of toxic material into the marshes.

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm

"The consulting firm R.A. Wiedemann & Associates indicated that the airport could bring the city a hefty long-term profit -- though this profit would have to be reinvested back into the airport." Read that again. NO PROFITS GO TO THE CITY.

Further "The report acknowledges city doesn't have the expertise to manage the airport, or to even hire the personnel to operate the facility." Who watches the watchers???

"Staff also remains uncertain about whether the city should manage all airport operations, hire a third party to operate the facility, or manage a fixed-base operator."

Another political skin game? The council can commit funds that don't exist to a questionable enterprise and then be long out of office when it comes to pay the piper. This is a typical ploy by politicians to enhance their legacy.

If it were such a wonderful deal, why is the County opting out? Answer; it's a money loser.

With all the negatives I find it mind-boggling that the "intellient" City Council would touch this with a 20 foot, let alone 10 foot, pole.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm

The best scenario for this would be for the county to continue running the airport with a liaison with the city of PA.

The two reasons are that the county has the experience and the city does not, but that the airport doesn't only benefit (yes benefit) Palo Alto residents but county residents. Therefore any subsidies should come out of county coffers not PA coffers.

Saying this, it makes sense to get this operating without incurring major losses. An efficient business plan must be instigated and published so that PA residents know exactly how much tie down fees, take-off/landing fees, passenger taxes, etc. are being generated by each aircraft, passenger, and pilot that uses the airport. We need to know about fuel taxes, long term parking fees, maintenance fees for aircraft, etc. are being generated and why this airport is not able to generate enough money to keep itself running efficiently.

Like this comment
Posted by Henry
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm

We should get rid of the airport and turn it into better use for the citizens. The city is only getting 50 cents per year from rent at the airport. We will be much better off with composing, recycling and recreation use at the airport.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 7, 2010 at 10:16 am

" Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, 21 hours ago
Walter_E_Wallis is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online

I would be willing to shut down Palo Alto ONLY if we could be guaranteed full access to Moffett at rates no greater than at present. "

TANSTAAFL is my reply to your greed demands.

If the fees don't support the use of the land, then Palo Alto needs to find a better use for it. Your FREE RIDE at the taxpayers expense is OVER!

Moffett Field AT ANY PRICE is the proper solution. YOUR need for a close, cheap solution doesn't outweigh the needs of the citizens of Palo Alto and EPA.

You don't like this? Then find a new hobby that OTHER PEOPLES MONEY doesn't support!

PS: I've been a pilot & owned my own aircraft. BUT I do this RESPONSIBLY.

Like this comment
Posted by Keep it Open
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 7, 2010 at 11:36 am

@Jack Ellis - +1

The airport is a tremendous community resource. I'm surprised at the outpouring of negativity toward trying to keep it open.

I posted the following awhile back:

I take great pleasure in having the baylands preserve so close to my home. The airport is one of its unique draws - you are able to walk right alongside the runway, observing as planes take off and land. And in a surprising exhibition of leniency on the homeland security front, you're able to sit right at the end of the runway and watch as aircraft fly overhead. It's fantastic, majestic, and inspiring.

The baylands airport is a known commodity. There are plenty of other preserves without an airport if silence and serenity is what you seek.

But I find large numbers of families who bring their children out to observer birds in the marsh, squirrels along paths, and ducks in the pond - the airport providing an intriguing backdrop.

A few months back, my wife and I came across a helicopter lesson on a field next to the terminal building. We watched for over 30 minutes as the machine practiced landings, hovering, and emergency stabilization maneuvers. What a treat!

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