KENNEWICK -- A recent count of takeoffs and landings at Kennewick's Vista Field Airport suggests that activity at the airport may be a fifth of the estimates used by the state Department of Transportation to determine economic impact.
Prior to this count, no one has been able to say for sure how much the towerless airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center is used.
The exact activity at Vista Field has become a central question in the debate over the airport's future. Tri-City pilots have argued that the airport is a piece of infrastructure that brings a benefit to the community as a whole, while others have questioned what value the 90-acre airport represents in a community that has three other public airports.
Port consulant Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. of Portland is in the midst of a study to determine the best options for keeping the airport open and developing it and closing the airport and redeveloping the property. The results will include the possible costs and benefits of either action.
Having the operational counts is part of answering the question the community has asked about what Vista Field currently means to the economy, said Larry Peterson, the Port of Kennewick's director of planning and development. And operations appear to be connected to the estimates of economic benefit.
It's important information to have no matter the outcome of the current study. Peterson said if the decision is to keep the airport open, the count will give the port a baseline to measure improvement in activity.
Counting takeoffs and landings
On average, 11.13 operations were observed on a daily basis on 31 days between May 16 and Oct. 22, according to the count. A takeoff is one operation, and a landing is another.
That would mean an annual average of about 4,062 operations a year, if the numbers are not seasonally adjusted to reflect decreased activity during winter months.
The days of the week varied, and on three of the days, no activity was observed, according to port documents.
The count was for 24 hours on the first three days of the count, Peterson said. When no activity was observed between midnight and 6 a.m., the time for the remaining counts was from 6 a.m. to midnight.
Since operations appear to be a key factor linked to jobs and economic benefit, Peterson said officials thought it critical to get a count.
A WSDOT aviation study released earlier this year attributed about 25,000 operations to the airport. That same report tied 12 jobs to Vista Field and $1.2 million in visitor spending.
If there were 25,000 operations a year at Vista Field, Peterson said it would mean that every 21 minutes, there would be a takeoff or a landing. That includes night and day, weekend, holidays and during bad weather.
Peterson said the differences in what was observed and what was estimated call into question the estimates of activity at nontowered airports and the economic benefits attached to them.
The port hired Anchor QEA for up to about $15,000 to collect airport usage information, said Tammy Fine, the Port of Kennewick's finance director and auditor. The company has been paid nearly $9,000.
Differences in the estimates of activity and economic benefit used in WSDOT's 2001 and 2012 aviation reports was part of what Peterson call's the port's "wake-up call" with Vista Field.
In 2001, Vista Field's activity was estimated at 45,000 operations. The airport generated about 137 jobs and $8.9 million in visitor spending to the airport.
The estimates in the 2012 report reflected up to a 91 percent drop for some of the figures, according to port documents.
Port officials have asked the consultants to take a look at the data from the counts as part of the study. More work will be done with the preliminary numbers.
Century West Engineering, an aviation consultant involved in the study, has indicated that there tend to be 450 operations per based aircraft per year for airports, Peterson said.
With 22 based aircraft, that would put Vista Field at about 9,900 operations, he said.
The port plans to present the study to the public and let the public decide the future of Vista Field through an advisory vote.
The new estimate of Vista Field's activity would make the airport less busy than the Port of Benton's Prosser Airport.
The Prosser Airport has about 12,000 takeoffs and landings a year, with about 25 to 30 planes based there, said John Haakenson, the Port of Benton's director of airports and operations. The state estimates takeoffs and landings at 6,000 annually.
The Port of Kennewick also paid for activity at the Port of Benton's Richland Airport to be counted on five days in May and June as a comparison. In total, 240 operations were observed on those days, an average of 48 per day.
Without seasonal adjustments, that would mean about 17,520 operations per year, according to port documents.
However, since the count was only on five days, Haakenson said that wouldn't be a large enough sample to reflect the annual activity of the airport.
WSDOT estimates the Richland Airport's activity at about 70,000 operations a year. But Port of Benton officials say that is high. Haakenson estimates activity at the airport, which has about 160 aircraft based there, is closer to 35,200 operations.
That's what was included in a 2010 precision approach study for the Federal Aviation Administration done with the help of J-U-B Engineers and was based on surveys, information from MedStar and counting airplanes on the ground, he said.
The only Tri-City area airport where officials can say for sure how much the airport is used is the Port of Pasco's Tri-Cities Airport.
From November 2011 through October, there were nearly 52,000 operations at the Tri-Cities Airport, according to Port of Pasco documents.
Of that, a little more than 36,600 was from general aviation, according to the documents. The airport has commercial flights, two fixed-based operators including Bergstrom Aircraft, a flight school and about 134 based aircraft.