Findings on Vista Field use important piece of puzzle

By the Tri-City HeraldNovember 30, 2012 

Sometimes, long-asked questions are finally answered, bringing clarity to otherwise murky situations.

Such is the case with Kennewick's Vista Field Airport.

Proponents for keeping the airport open have long argued that it's an unappreciated gem of an airport, used by far more planes than anyone realizes.

Opponents have called the airport, in the heart of Kennewick's retail district, a drain on taxpayer resources that serves an elite but vocal few business owners.

Well, now we have some data.

The airport is used even less than previously estimated. At best, the airport has 4,062 "operations" a year. Taking off and landing are counted as individual operations.

Someone practicing touch-and-go landings, a common method when learning to pilot an airplane, would be counted for each takeoff and landing, even though the plane never stopped. And if the plane doesn't stop, that means the people aren't getting out and contributing to that all important economic impact that has been touted as being up to $1.2 million per year at Vista Field.

Those 4,062 operations also don't take into account that there are probably fewer flights during the winter. The count was taken from May 16 to Oct. 22 of this year, which should be the prime months for flying. Averaging that count to a standard year-round figure is being generous.

And even the months observed, the use of Vista Field is minimal. On three days during the period, there were no operations at all. Vista Field ranks far behind even the Prosser Airport, which has about three times as many operations in a given year.

Up until now, the data folks had been relying on was based on a Washington State Department of Transportation aviation study. That report attributed 25,000 operations to Vista Field, 12 jobs tied to the facility and $1.2 million in spending by visitors.

Even operators of airports who track their own data say the state estimates are exaggerated figures. For example, the WSDOT says the Richland Airport has 70,000 operations per year. But the Port of Benton says it's probably closer to half that figure, around 35,000.

One thing we know for sure is how much activity is at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco. That facility reports 52,000 operations per year, making it difficult to believe the state's estimate for Vista Field, which puts the number close to half the activity of the region's largest airport.

For all the pilots and Vista Field advocates, we know numbers can be crunched and manipulated to serve a purpose. But that sure doesn't appear to be the case here. An outside firm was hired to do the count.

Yes, the Port of Kennewick -- Vista Field's overseer -- is the entity writing the check for the study, but that doesn't mean the data is skewed. The numbers probably would have been higher a few years back but uncertainty over the airport's future has caused many to take their business -- and their planes -- to Pasco or Richland airports.

The landings data will be used in part of a broader study to determine the best future for Vista Field. The possibilities include further developing the airport or closing it and using the land for other ventures.

It will be interesting to see what the big picture looks like when the study is complete.

Port commissioners took some heat for ordering yet another study, but in hindsight the expense seems justified.

Those on either side of the issue ought to welcome the effort. It will help ensure the final decision on the airport's future is based on the best data available.

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