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General aviation on the upswing in Tri-Cities

Hank Hayes • Aug 10, 2013 at 9:57 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — One of the region’s biggest economic drivers will take center stage in two weeks with all of its business flying in.

Up to 150 private planes are expected to be parked on the airfield at Tri-Cities Regional Airport where NASCAR drivers and crew members, in addition to race fans, will be shuttled to Bristol Motor Speedway for the heralded night race.

They will all walk across the tarmac and through automatic doors leading into the remodeled lobby of Tri-City Aviation, TCRA’s main general aviation (GA) operator.

While set apart from TCRA’s main terminal, thousands use the GA facility — including economic development prospects with corporate aircraft, plus those race teams flying in to compete at Bristol Motor Speedway twice a year. TCRA recently completed a $1.1 million makeover of the GA facility’s lobby, main entrance and tarmac entrance.

The facility is considered one of the region’s most important front doors and now it has some sizzle.

GA is all-civilian flying except scheduled commercial passenger airlines. It includes flying as diverse as a weekend visit back home or an emergency medical evacuation. There are also similarities between how people use their automobiles and how GA pilots use their aircraft.

Nationally, GA contributed $38.8 billion to the economy in 2009. Factoring in manufacturing and visitor expenditures, GA accounted for an economic contribution of $76.5 billion, according to a Federal Aviation Administration study.

At TCRA, the GA community is now served at Tri-City Aviation by a completely remodeled lobby with a large flat screen high-definition TV, expanded restrooms, more accessibility for handicapped travelers and a larger conference area for pilots. Interior and exterior areas feature elaborate stone work.

“The public absolutely loves it They cannot say enough about it. It was much overdue,” Tri-City Aviation General Manager Pam Phillips said of the facilities upgrade, which was shown to the public at an open house last Thursday.

Here’s why GA in our region is important: Based on year-to-date numbers through June, TCRA’s commercial air carriers accounted for 20 percent of total aircraft movements.

“Military, general aviation, charters, cargo and air taxi account for 80 percent. If we pull out general aviation specifically, it represents nearly 73 percent of the total movements on the airfield,” said Melissa Thomas, TCRA’s director of marketing and air service development.

Tri-City Aviation also sells aircraft fuel, and the price is going up, Phillips said.

“It is forcing corporate aviation to look at how they buy fuel,” she said of the trend. “There are certain [fuel] discount cards we accept that tell us what direction these pilots are going to. ... It makes day-to-day operating difficult.”

But Phillips stressed Tri-City Aviation’s business — which includes collecting rental fees from storing planes in hangars and tie-down areas — is currently on the upswing, albeit seasonal.

“We have the night race going on, and we’ve got people flying in who have homes over in North Carolina. ... This is typically our high season,” she said. “Over the long haul, we do see gradual increases that general aviation is coming back.”

According to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), 85 percent of the companies relying on business aircraft are small and mid-size companies, with many of them operating out of facilities like Tri-City Aviation.

“The majority of the time, companies are using a single airplane to fly teams of mid-level people who need to discuss proprietary information en route or move parts and equipment they can’t take on commercial airlines,” NBAA said in a position paper. “It’s clear that more elected officials realize that business aviation is essential to our economy and transportation system. It generates jobs; gives a lifeline to communities with little or no airline service; helps companies stay efficient and competitive; and is vital to humanitarian and relief efforts. ... And companies want to ensure that executives are able to maintain flexible and nimble schedules, with reliable transportation access to all the places they may need to reach on a moment’s notice.”

For more about Tri-City Aviation go to www.tricityaviation.com?.

For more about NBAA go to www.nbaa.org.

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