TCRA working to get flat revenues off the ground

Hank Hayes • Jul 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - The group of men inside the Tri-Cities Regional Airport Commission Room last Tuesday sounded like boardroom executives airing random solutions to prop up a struggling bottom line.

They looked at the numbers and bar graphs, and tried to make sense of it all.

They didn't appear alarmist, but they also weren't smiling for the most part.

One by one, the handful of airport commissioners on TCRA's new Ad Hoc Revenue Development Committee threw their ideas on the table as a baseline for discussion to help the airport's flat operating revenues get off the ground.

"This will give us a floor to think from," Airport Commission Chairman John Abe Teague, a Washington County representative, said at the start of the organizational meeting.

The "floor to think from" is this: TCRA's operating revenues are flying above expenses by mere percentage points. And, in TCRA's current budget year, the airport will depend upon passengers for nearly $4.9 million, or 82 percent of its operating revenues.

Passengers support TCRA in a number of ways - through ticket fees, parking, rental car commissions, restaurant concessions and spending money with other airport tenants.

Ridership was moving past 400,000 passengers a year until Sept. 11, 2001, and descended toward the 380,000 mark in 2003. Air travel confidence peaked with a record high of about 480,000 passengers in 2005, but airline bankruptcies and high fuel costs coupled with soaring airfares pushed that number back to about 420,000 last year.

TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson described the airport's financial situation - with its overdependence on passenger dollars - as yet another "roller-coaster ride" in a series of post-9/11 roller-coaster rides.

"It makes it tough to plan for the future," he told the committee. "You are pretty much going from one crisis situation to the next. ... We are at the mercy of airline industry changes."

Wilson said TCRA needs another $250,000 to $300,000 in yearly operating money "just to get us more where we would like to be in maintaining the facility."

On the capital projects side, Wilson said the airport needs $650,000 to $700,000 of additional annual net income "ideally to keep the airport where we would like to be long term."

Then the thoughts from commissioners on the committee started flowing.

Commissioner Dan Mahoney of Johnson City asked: Would it pay to build out TCRA's largely vacant lower level and rent that?

Yes, said Wilson, but we don't have the available cash.

Airport Commission Vice Chairman Ken Maness of Kingsport then responded: Why not use debt financing to do the job?

"This is a very attractive place for people to locate. There is a tremendous advantage of being at the airport should we build out to accommodate someone," Maness told the committee.

Commissioner John Gillenwater of Bristol, Tenn., questioned the idea of using long-term debt to get revenue from short-term tenant leases.

"We have to look at the total package," he said.

Still, committee members seemed to agree that TCRA needs to be more aggressive in using long-term debt to seize business opportunities, especially on the airport's mostly undeveloped south side where new corporate hangars or aircraft manufacturing facilities could be built.

"One of our biggest assets is land. ... We're in the aviation business. We have to marry the two," said Commissioner Jerry Repass of Sullivan County.

Repass insisted TCRA needs an updated business plan, and commissioners indicated East Tennessee State University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research could help put one together.

"There is no general consensus as to the right way to go," the bureau's director, Jon Smith, advised committee members.

Other ideas that were tossed about included creating more tourism opportunities to boost discretionary travel and expanding a sluggish general aviation operation.

Wilson suggested the situation isn't all that bad. He noted TCRA ranks 37th out of its 66 peer airports and still represents a $44 million market for the airlines.

"Revenue-wise, (the peer airports) are in the same situation we are in," Wilson said. "And we are still an important market for the airlines."

For more about TCRA go to www.triflight.com.

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