SOUNDOFF: Navy is key to commerical flight

I was very encouraged to see, after three years, that local government is finally taking some interest in the lack of air service to Whidbey Island. Unfortunately, I feel that the efforts are, at this stage, somewhat misguided and uninformed.

Mr. Joel Eisenberg owns a second trust deed on the airport. He is not the owner of the airport. There are creditors in front of and behind him in priority. The total debt recorded and unrecorded on the property exceeds the value of the property by 100 to 200 percent, including amounts owed to the federal government. The recorded owner of the property is still Harbor Airlines, a defunct, non-registered former Washington corporation. The squabbles over ownership with no one willing to foreclose have now gone on for three years. To buy into this mess with tax dollars would be a disaster. And really, government operating something cheaper than private enterprise, on what planet, Joel?

Second, as implied in the News-Times article, the airport is inadequate to service the island with reliable, safe air transportation. The airstrip is too narrow and has a severe difference in elevation between the east and west ends with a resulting “ski jump” in the middle. There has never been a truly workable instrument approach to the airport. The cost of the necessary improvements to make the airport operationally safe will be high.

Third we come to Homeland Security and TSA. Implementation of new procedures for scheduled service will be another cost. Certain portions of these costs may be met by the various federal departments but I expect that a significant burden will be placed upon the operator to bring the airport into compliance.

Fourth, I spent over a year actively trying to find a way under the new rules and post 9/11 insurance climate to make an air service economically viable from Lupien Field. I came to the conclusion that it just won’t work. Now, I was not in the position of Kenmore Air or San Juan Airlines in that I would have had to acquire new aircraft and they both currently operate fleets which they may have amortized. But I did have 15 years of experience in the field and an FAA Air Carrier Certificate. If either one of them can pull it off and make a profit safely, more power to them, I would be impressed. One thing that was made very clear to me: people did not want to fly to Boeing Field. Period. It was SeaTac or nothing.

Now having stated the reason why I feel that Lupien Field is not appropriate for scheduled air service, let me say that as a pilot I enjoy flying into and operating from this quaint, rural airport. As a light plane facility it is fun, charming and a challenge. Airports like this are all too rapidly disappearing from our country, it would be a travesty to lose this one.

With regard to scheduled air service, it’s time that the community and the Navy wake up. We have two great airports here on the island, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Outlying Field. Joint use at OLF is a no brainer. Security is not an issue for the Navy no matter the resistance. A secure small terminal facility would probably be less costly than at Lupien, the runway will accommodate commuter aircraft, precision instrument approaches and the land cost would be minimal. It is in a rural area and already a noise impacted area. Commuter aircraft would hardly be noticeable. In addition, it is situated to serve both Oak Harbor and Coupeville as well as Central Whidbey.

NAS presents more security issues, but none that are not relatively easy to resolve if all concerned are willing to talk realistically. Once again, a small terminal on the opposite side of the runway from the Navy flight operations with no access to the base except through the terminal building and then directly onto a waiting aircraft seems like a good solution. The terminal would be physically isolated from the operational side of the flight line and the frequency of flights would not impact operations at NAS in any appreciable fashion.

The community and the Navy need to wake up to the possibility of a base closure here. Yes, it can happen. The more we work together and show the bean counters that NASWI is an integral part of Whidbey Island the better our chances for not losing this extremely important part of our community and national defense. The Joint Council of Governments needs to include local Navy commanders as well as flag level regional commanders in their discussions.

It is also time to get our congressional delegation involved. Invite TSA and find out what compliance issues you have. The first step toward joint use is a request from a municipality; it can’t come from the private sector. If you don’t ask it’s a sure thing nothing will happen. Ask and get a dialogue started. Joint use works.

To all who are realistically working on our air service needs, good luck, you have my support.

Michael Lauver lives in Coupeville.

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