WATERVILLE — Robert A. LaFleur Municipal Airport is closer than ever to being self-sustaining, as air traffic is increasing, jet fuel sales are booming and $13 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants over the last 11 years have helped improve the infrastructure.
More corporate and private jets, as well as smaller aircraft, are using the airport, more hangars are being constructed and the flight school and skydiving businesses based there are busy, Airport Manager Randy Marshall said.
“We are discussing with a private party having a restaurant on the field,” Marshall said Friday. “We’re still a little bit on the down-low so we can’t speak more about that, but it’s in the development process and we’re very excited about it.”
Marshall and others are working through details for the restaurant, which would have views of the airfield and patrons would be able to see aircraft landing and taking off, he said.
“We’ve been talking about wanting to do this for years,” he said, “and actually seeing things develop and happen — it’s a very exciting time. It’s something I’ve spent 11 years working towards.”
The airport budget for 2022-23 is nearly $581,000 and Marshall said the airport is closer than ever to being self-sustainable, which has been a goal for the city.
“We’re way closer than we have ever been and are continuing to trend in that direction,” he said.
The city’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. City Manager Steve Daly reported to the City Council recently that 2021-22 had been a banner year for the airport, with jet fuel sales up 60% over last year and 151% over the year before. In 2017, the airport sold 39,000 gallons of fuel; 45,000 in 2018; 36,000 in 2019; 58,000 in 2020; and, last year, 92,000 gallons.
So far this year it has sold more than 130,000 gallons. Marshall said fuel sales are the “lifeblood” of the airport.
An airplane headed to Kenya stopped at the airport for fuel this summer, and during Colby College’s graduation there were 12 corporate jets lined up on the tarmac, according to Daly. The airport has collected more than $40,000 in landing fees this year, representing a 436% increase over last year, he said, adding that an increase in fees has not stopped aircraft from using the airport.
The airport, located off Airport Road, which is off busy Kennedy Memorial Drive, has also received double the number of “callouts,” or people calling at night, in the off hours, wanting to fuel aircraft. Daly said there have been more than 150 calls this year. Marshall or another full-time employee responds when people call for fuel.
“I have a small but very efficient, very professional crew,” Marshall said, adding that last year in July they received nine callouts, and 22 this July.
He said he also has a strong relationship with other airports in the state and considers all of them on the same team.
The airport has used FAA grants to rehabilitate both runways.
“We just finished the taxiway with the largest grant the airport has ever received, $4.6 million,” Marshall said. “Grant funding actually derives from aircraft fuel tax and airline ticket tax, so people using aviation fund the aviation infrastructure.”
Mayor Jay Coelho has long been an advocate for the airport, calling it a significant asset to the city.
“We have a great airport,” Coelho said Friday. “We’ve done a lot of changes, looking at different things we can do to attract more people here. Randy’s been doing a great job and I’ve always said, if you want people to do a good job for you, you have to listen to department heads.”
The runway in Waterville is 500 feet longer than at nearby Augusta State Airport. Unlike many airports that are landlocked and have little property to expand, Waterville’s has a lot of room for expansion and development, according to Marshall.
Examples of entities using the airport are Myer Tool, a company that supplies the aerospace and gas turbine engine industries, Backyard Farms, engineering firms, lawyers’ offices, vacationers to Maine, summer camps and celebrities.
“It’s a smorgasbord of all the things represented in our area,” he said.
The city serves as the operator of the airport, providing a variety of aviation services, but Marshall said one day he’d like to see a private entity take over so that he and others can focus on the airfield. Besides himself and a full-time employee, the airport has two people who work 24 hours a week and one who works eight hours. They do all the airfield maintenance, snow plowing and mowing on the 400-acre property.
Jump and Raft, a skydiving school, formerly Vacation Skydiving, offers skydiving one day and whitewater rafting the next. It’s based at the airport and is busy, as is flight school Airlink Academy, Marshall said.
“Both of those operations are doing very well — we see a lot of activity,” he said.
He said area residents Thursday night may have seen the US Marines based in Portland doing training exercises out of LaFleur.
“It was quite a sight,” he said.
Coelho said he is confident the airport will continue on its current trajectory.
“I think the airport will continue to grow, if more and more people realize how well we’re doing in Waterville,” he said. “We have hope. We’ve seen a new energy, just in the last few years. We know we’re on the upswing, despite all the global issues.”
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