Change in Flight Plan
A veteran pilot, town officials and a state senator are imploring the agency overseeing Block Island State Airport to restore cuts made last fall, saying the reduction in manpower is compromising service and safety. This week Jim Hummel travels to the island to get a first-hand look at what’s happening - then sits down with the head of operations and maintenance at The Rhode Island Airport Corporation for his response to the concerns on Block Island.
It is one of the lifelines to an island that relies on aircraft - and ferries - to drive tourism and serve a year-round population of nearly a thousand people.
The Block Island State Airport, built in 1950, is one of the busier facilities in the state, when measured by the number of passengers. But it also has the shortest runway and no fuel or hangars available to generate revenue.
It is one of Rhode Island’s five so-called general aviation airports, that also includes Quonset, North Central, Newport and Westerly. In 1993, state law called for a transfer of airport management from the state Department of Transportation to a newly formed quasi-public agency known as the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, which now answers to the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.
Last fall, the flight service provider staffing Block Island pulled out, leaving the terminal at times unmanned for pilots coming in and out of facility.
DuPont: “We learned this when employees p there told us they had been given their notices they were getting laid off.”
Henry DuPont has lived on and flown out of Block Island since the late 1970s when he bought this 1976 Cessna Cardinal R/G. He is here virtually every day and monitors the airport’s radio frequency.
DuPont: “When they laid off the airport attendants, RIAC said well, our maintenance employee can fill in. He’s busy maintaining an airport. And he’s doing a good job, but he only works 40 hours a week. The airport has operations for 70 or 80 hours a week, when it’s open and planes are taking off or landing. So on his days off or when he’s out doing maintenance in the field, there’s no one to answer the radios or to guide pilots to parking places or to give them wheel chocks or whatnot.”
So how did it happen? For years, the airport corporation contracted management companies for a set monthly price that were experienced in providing airport services. And it required companies to take on all five airports, or none.
But last summer the agency changed the model: instead having prospective bidders lease the individual facilities and get a cut of the fuel sales and other revenue streams. It was no surprise to DuPont that the winning bidder - FlightLevel Aviation in Massachusetts - did not include Block Island in its proposal.
DuPont: “Block Island is one of the only airports that doesn’t have as much revenue as we have for expenses. And the reason why is we don’t have on Block Island fuel sales and we don’t have hangars to rent, which is one of the primary sources of revenue at the other airports.
Andrade: “Safety, security is our No. 1 focus and No. 1 objective. That’s our obligation of managing and maintaining an airport.”
Alan Andrade is the airport corporation’s senior vice president for operations and maintenance. He said the agency, based on “pilot feedback,” decided to change the way it provides services to the five outlying airports.
“Out of the responsive proposals that we received, none of the proposers provided a proposal for Block island. So with that, RIAC, as we went through and awarded FlightLevel we had conversations and discussions with them in the negotiation process and we encouraged them - and we pushed them - to explore and entertain, see if they could make Block island Airport work as far as providing the services there. They agreed to be there through Sept. 30th, to explore and experiment and see if that is something they would like to do and their response was they’re not interested in providing services at Block Island.”
DuPont said the result was for months the airport had a 40-hour-a-week airport corporation maintenance employee to cover 60 to 70 hours of operation. He began contacting RIAC, town officials, the island’s legislative delegation and the Federal Aviation Administration, writing position papers and imploring the airport corporation to restore service.
We spoke with him at the beginning of the month and DuPont described an incident that had happened a few weeks earlier.
Dupont: “Airports like BIock Island or Westerly or North Central, or Newport, who also don’t have air traffic control towers, the airport attendant’s job is to answer any radio calls from the aircraft to tell them which runway is currently in use so there isn’t a conflict with planes landing on opposing runways - if the airport has more than one they could run into each other at the intersection. Or in this case last weekend, two aircraft were coming from different directions and the wind was from the north, which is a cross wind, which means you could land on either end of the runway. And two planes were attempting to land at the same time, on opposite ends of the runway; after calling the airport attendant and getting no answer. So the request is: you give your airport number, you ask what the active runway is and it’s the preferred runway that planes have been using. Since there was no answer, they thought: okay, well it’s pilot’s choice then; luckily there was an aircraft on the ground that overheard heard them, each announcing they were going to land on either ends of te runway, who told them what the active runway was, through his aircraft radio. And the plane that was landing the wrong direction went around and landed properly. But the fact that airport attendants have been providing that information for years makes it a safer airport.”
DuPont said when the airport was fully staffed, one of the employees would often take the RIAC truck and clear the runway for the pilots.
DuPont: “When I go out in the morning and there’s birds on the runway, I have to taxi up and down the runway to drive the birds off with my plane before I can safely take off. Normally I would call the airport attendant, they would go out in the truck and scare the birds off and tell me that it’s safe to take off and I could do so.”
The airport corporation, in response, has added another part-time employee to help provide coverage seven days a week. It happens to be the first warden, or president, of the island’s Town Council.
Andrade: “We are committed to working with the town to serve the needs and desires of the community, to provide whatever level of service they’re asking for and we’re looking to increase the level of activity if that’s their desire and we’re going to continue to make that effort to be good partners with the community.:
The agency also put out another round of bids in December - not requiring prospective companies to have extensive flight service experience as before - and received one response. Block Island Reservations is in talks to begin providing service at the airport by hiring by two employees from the former provider.
Roberge: “This is a critical component to Block island. We have our ferries and we have our airport. That’s the only way that you can get on and off the island with those services. Without it, we’re kind of in a tough position.”
Town Manager Ed Roberge has asked RIAC to hold off hiring Block Island Reservations because part of the contract would involve the company exploring a car rental business at the airport, which is not permitted under the town’s zoning regulations.
But, Roberge says, there needs to be a resolution before the busy tourist season begins in a few months.
Roberge: “Fortunately we’re in the off season, but it would affect, if this were the staffing level in our peak season, sure it would affect the service levels.”
DuPont says he understands that Block island loses about $100,000 a year but when combined with the other four airports, the airport corporation is receiving positive cash flow.
DuPont: “It may cost the state more to plow state roads in some towns than others, but those towns shouldn’t have to pay more state sales tax, for example, than other towns just because it costs the state more to operate a state agency within that town.”
So where does it stand? The airport corporation is considering the town’s request to come up with a new plan.
Andrade: “As a system Block Island continues to provide the service that it has there, it’s a small airport, 2,500-foot runway, so it’s limited in terms of what it has available. But it is an airport that is providing the service for the commuter airline as part of that operation at that airport has done very well there. Overall it is an airport that if it were standing on its own would have a difficult time.”
DuPont: “They’re looking to cut the general aviation budget anyway they can. And they thought they could cut here first because no one would say anything about it.”
On Block Island, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.