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Torrance Airport May Charge Pilots Who Fly During Curfew

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to trim the deficit for Torrance Municipal Airport’s aeronautical operations, the Airport Commission has voted to create a $216 annual fee for pilots who regularly fly in and out of the airport during curfew hours.

But the commission also Thursday rejected a staff recommendation to charge pilots $48 for one-time curfew exemptions and to increase the city’s share of aircraft fuel sales from 3 cents per gallon to 8 cents.

The decisions, which require City Council approval, followed testimony from several Torrance pilots who said the proposed increases would hurt the airport because pilots would use other airports where fees are lower.

A staff survey of 28 Southern California airports said 19 of those charge fuel fees of between 4 cents and 15 cents a gallon, while three airports charge 3 cents or less. No fuel fees are charged at four airports and no information was available for two others. The report showed that Hawthorne gets 13 cents per gallon and Long Beach 8 cents, while Santa Monica operates the fuel concession itself. Aviation fuel costs about $1.75 a gallon at Torrance’s airport.

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Barry Jay, president of the Torrance Airport Boosters Assn., called the curfew fees “punitive and unreasonable” and said increasing the fuel charge would drive pilots to buy fuel elsewhere.

“We need to be competitive to keep the Torrance airport attractive,” he said.

Joe Arciuch, a longtime airport critic, disagreed, saying pilots should pay more for the cost of operating the airport. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” he said. “But there are some people who still believe in a free lunch.”

An increase in the fuel fee was rejected 4-2, with Chairman Thomas Nosek, Commissioners Gary Kovacs, David Winkler and Alessio Micci voting against it. Commissioners William Sobko and James McKee favored an 8-cent fee.

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A motion on the curfew fees was approved 5-1, with only Commissioner William Sobko, opposed.

In an interview Friday, Nosek said he rejected the one-time curfew exemption fee because the revenues would not cover the staff time needed to track the exemptions. However, he explained his support of the annual curfew exemption charge, saying it would pay for itself and pilots could justify it as a business expense.

Nosek opposed the fuel charge increase because it would drive away pilots, a sentiment echoed by other commissioners.

The annual curfew exemption fee would raise about $3,400 annually.

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The proposed one-time curfew exemption fee which was rejected would raise an additional $1,900 annually and the proposed fuel fee increase would raise $26,250, according to the staff report. Most of the other air fields have no curfews, and none had curfew exemption fees, the report said.

This year the airport staff issued 16 annual curfew exemptions and 40 one-time exemptions.

One-time curfew exemptions are given by the airport’s noise abatement staff to pilots who land or depart during the curfew hours of 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Such exemptions are only given on an emergency basis.

Annual curfew exemptions are usually issued to pilots who must fly regularly during curfew hours. Brian Raber, the airport’s program specialist, said such exemptions have been given to doctors who must make late-night emergency calls, and pilots who must fly over the ocean early in the morning to spot fish for commercial fishermen.

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During the meeting, Kovacs said the airport’s finances “have become an emotional issue” among pilots and nearby homeowners.

Budget in the Black

Since 1979, the aeronautical operations of the airport have lost the city a total of about $2.5 million, according to past city budget reports. However, revenues from airport land leased to mini-malls, auto dealerships and others regularly put the total airport budget in the black.

A city effort this year to raise more revenue directly from airport operations met with disappointment in July when only one business responded to a city request for bids to build aviation-related businesses at the airport. The city had contacted dozens of aviation companies throughout Southern California, asking them to send proposals.

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The winning bidder would provide a wide variety of services, including aircraft sales and leasing, flight schools, maintenance and fuel services, Raber said, or he could lease out portions of the rights. The deadline for proposals was July 7 and a $25,000 deposit was required to ensure the developer goes through with its plan.

More Proposals Sought

Alber Ng, the assistant city manager, said the city has since extended the deadline indefinitely and sought more proposals. He said requiring a deposit is not unusual for Torrance, although a deposit is not required for every project in the city.

Ng said he thinks it has been difficult to attract proposals because of the strict noise and aircraft restrictions the city imposes at the airport. For example, he said the airport has a ban on jet fuel sales because city officials and nearby residents fear it would attract more jets and increase noise. Certain large, piston-driven aircraft are prohibited because of the noise they make.

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He also said businesses may not be interested in the airport because “the airport needs a face lift.” Many buildings at the airport were built during World War II and are now dilapidated, he said.

Center Being Designed

City officials hope the airport’s financial picture will improve when the city finishes construction of two new airplane hangars and completes the $1.5-million General Aviation Center, which is now being designed.

Bob Hamilton, owner of G & S Industries, an aircraft maintenance business at the airport for last 15 years, said he did not submit a proposal because of the $25,000 deposit.

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Hamilton agreed that the airport needs substantial renovations. “This airport has gone straight to hell in the last 10 years,” he said.

RAISING AIRPORT REVENUES Annual revenues produced by three alternatives considered by the Torrance Airport Commission, which selected the annual curfew exemption fee.

Annual curfew exemption fee ($216 annual fee charged to pilots who use the airport during curfew hours of 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.): $3,400

One-time curfew exemption ($48 per curfew exemption): $1,900

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Fuel fee increase (from 3 cents to 8 cents per gallon): $26,250

SOURCE: Airport Commission


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