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Flying Toward a Higher Level at Tipton Airport

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Since Tipton Airport reopened in 1999, the facility has enjoyed a slow, steady trajectory of success. Today, the facility is a solid contributor to the local economy, averaging 43,000 takeoffs per year.

If that number sounds impressive, the financials underscore what the general aviation facility means to the local economy: According to an economic impact study completed by Maryland Aviation Administration this past summer, Tipton generates $18,859,000 in business revenue, $12,920,000 in personal income, and $1,369,000 in state and local taxes.

Those numbers have been realized with the airport operating for 16 years with a 3,000-foot runway, which is long enough to accommodate light twin-engine aircraft, but doesn’t usually work for larger models, such as the King Air 200, a small business-class plane.

Given its economic progress, the airport management wants to take the next step and expand the runway to 4,200 feet, which would allow the airport to accommodate the larger planes and take some more pressure off of nearby BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, while increasing revenues for Tipton in the process.

However, the expansion also would call for the removal of up to 74 heavily-wooded acres that were once part of Fort Meade, but are now part of the adjacent 12,865-acre Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which wraps around most of the facility.

While the environmental assessment for the project began three years ago, there hasn’t been any movement on the plan; today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of addressing public comments. Airport management is hoping that the environmental side of the process will be complete next year, then followed by design and, hopefully, two years of construction that will start in 2018.

The Back Story

Airport management is working with the FAA and “will modify its assessment to address the comments. Hopefully that will give the FAA what it needs to make a ruling at Tipton,” said Mike Wassel, airport manager of the facility, which was initially brought back to the market by the Anne Arundel County Government. Today, Tipton operates as a quasi-public entity, is tax exempt and operates in the black.

If the runway is built, it would be another huge step forward for Tipton, which rose on 350 acres to the south of what is now Route 32 around 1962, during the earlier days of the Vietnam War, when Fort Meade served as home to the First Infantry and was the site of helicopter training.

Eventually, Tipton was slated for closing during the Base Realignment and Closure in 1988 and was dormant from 1994 until the U.S. Army turned the property over to the county government in 1999, then ultimately was deeded over to the Tipton Airport Authority.

“The expansion would allow us to increase efficiencies and sell more fuel, which ties in to the weight of the planes,” said Wassel, who has served as the manager of Tipton since it reopened.

The facility gets 90% of the money for construction projects from the FAA, with 5% coming from the state and the rest from Tipton; the operation generates revenue off of rentals and leasing of facilities, as well as fuel sales.

Economic Punch

While the MAA figures present the picture of a successful operation, small airports like Tipton, ironically, operate somewhat under the radar screen.

“People understand the value of large airports and the big airlines, but those who aren’t involved in the industry don’t comprehend the economic development benefits that are derived via the small, general aviation airports,” said Dawn Veatch, senior director, government affairs, airport advocacy for the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association.

And smaller airports “are not just for people who have little airplanes,” Veatch said, noting that the larger planes “don’t need to refuel as often,” which means larger airplanes “carry more fuel and as a result, are heavier. They require longer runway lengths, but they, in turn, create more tax revenue by buying larger quantities of fuel and carrying more passengers.”

And runway length is critical to what types of services a small airport can bring to the community, and the additional traffic it would generate would benefit the local business community,” she said, “and open the area around Tipton to future development, too.”

Veatch also reiterated that 90% of the runway funding would be provided by the federal government, with the remainder coming from the state and local governments, but added that, “The final 10% would not come from schools, but from a special fund that is set aside strictly for aviation.”

Lovin’ That Location

Another selling point that separates Tipton from the pack among general aviation facilities is its ideal location, which is not only convenient to the Baltimore and Washington metro areas, but also features Fort Meade situated to its immediate north, as well as excellent access via the four-lane Route 32.

Speaking of the airport flying under the radar, “Tipton happens to lie in a flight restricted zone due to its proximity to the nation’s capital, but that does not detract from its usefulness,” said Nick Yokanovich, ​administrative officer with the Fort Meade Flying Activity (FMFA). “It’s still a very important airfield.

If observers think it’s important now, imagine it with that crucial extra 1,200 feet built on to its current runway. “It will be more important [at that point], since it will take pressure off of BWI [Thurgood Marshall Airport] when larger planes, like business jets,​ are able to start using Tipton,” Yokanovich said.

As far as general aviation airports go, Tipton is “one of the best of the dozen or so I’ve been to,” he said, adding that it is the best place for [the Activity’s] flying club, “since we’re in the middle of our customer base here.”

Yokanovich recalled the years when Tipton was closed and the FMFA was using Lee Airport, on Route 2 in Edgewater, from the mid-’90s to early 2000s as its base.

“We lost membership during that period, but we’ve thrived since our return. Membership is up by 25% since we returned to Tipton in 2001, and our organization now includes more than 300 members,” he said. “It’s always had a better runway than most of the other area general aviation facilities.

And that location, by the way, is also great when it comes to attracting new members who want to learn to fly. “Training represents about one-third of our business,” Yokanovich said.

Looking (Way) Ahead

Wassel noted that some upgrades are already underway, including improved Internet access, and the repaving of the entry roads and the parking lots.

If the runway extension at Tipton is approved (Brad Knudsen, refuge manager at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, did not return calls for comment from The Business Monthly by press time), that news would lead to other improvements at the airport, which Wassel said would include renovations to the existing hangers, more and better parking, and perhaps the addition of a rental car facility.

That would all be great news to Greg Pecoraro, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership, who said that Tipton, even in its present incarnation, “continues to be a solid reliever for BWI Marshall.”

Pecoraro also knows that the expansion of Tipton has been in the plans for a long time. “Back when I was with AOPA, in 2009, the state legislature approved the runway expansion. It made very good sense for Tipton and BWI Marshall, even back then,” he said.

“Now they have some environmental challenges with the expansion,” he said, “but lots of airports around the country manage to work through these issues, so I’m hopeful that Tipton will be able to reach an environmentally sound accommodation with its neighbors at the refuge.”