Boarding bridge

Passenger boarding bridges at the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport are seen. The city of Killeen is currently seeking bids to replace the 14-year-old bridges at gates 2-5 as part of a federally funded grant program.

Six months after Delta Airlines pulled out of the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, the facility is still trying to find its level as revenue and boarding numbers continue to flag.

On June 12, the council took the first step in trying to right the airport’s budget by considering the elimination of 23 parking fee exemptions for certain veterans that would help shore up around $300,000 in revenue lost annually.

But other concerns remain after the airport lost one of its three carriers in January and boardings continue to follow a downward trend.

All of the signs of decline have led to a troubling possibility in coming years: A subsidy from the city’s operational fund to keep the airport afloat. What remains to be seen is whether a subsidy of that kind — from a fund with its own existential concerns — would be feasible at all.

With those concerns in mind, the city will have to look for creative solutions to stymie the bleeding at the regional facility, even if that means alienating a crucial demographic — veterans — whose business help turn the airport around.

Mixed results

After a brief dip following Delta’s last flight Jan. 15, enplanement — or boarding — numbers have crept back up over the past three months.

In May, the city reported 10,199 boardings for the monthat the airport, compared to 8,866 in February.

On Tuesday, Killeen Director of Aviation Matthew Van Valkenburgh attributed that slight increase in passengers to an increased capacity from the two remaining carriers at the facility: American Airlines and United Airlines.

American Airlines has largely picked up the two flights left by Delta, now flying seven departures and seven arrivals each day. United offers just two arrivals and departures per day.

Van Valkenburgh said the increase in the number of flights and increase in aircraft size by both carriers have increased the facility’s capacity back to the numbers seen during Delta’s tenure.

“When Delta left our market, given the type aircraft they were flying, we lost approximately 144 seats per day, or our capacity was reduced that number,” Van Valkenburgh said. “Since that time, American began flying larger aircraft into the airport and added an additional flight (and) United has added an additional flight per day ... thus, our capacity is at or near the level when Delta left.”

While the uptick in capacity is promising, the 10,199 boardings in May is still below average for 2017’s numbers.

This year’s boardings are estimated to follow a trend of declining customers since 2010, when the airport’s boardings reached an all-time peak of 212,341.

In 2017, there were just 129,798.

If the airport has the exact same number of boardings it saw in May in every month of 2018, it would reach just 119,649 at year’s end.

Budget concerns

The continued decline in boardings has gone hand in hand with the declining health of the airport’s budget,

On Tuesday, Killeen City Manager Ron Olson said the aviation department — which includes Skylark Field — would burn through its reserve fund within the next two fiscal years if remedial steps are not taken.

While fiscal year 2019 budget figures are not yet available, the current year budget shows troubling signs for the airport.

According to the 2018 budget passed in September, the airport expected a roughly $600,000 decrease in revenue tied to a lag in fuel sales and the loss of rent payments tied to businesses pulling out of the airport terminal.

The city is currently bidding for a food and beverage operation to be installed in the terminal.

At the airport’s current pace, Van Valkenburgh said, a subsidy from the city’s operational fund could be necessary as soon as fiscal year 2021.

It’s unclear how exactly a subsidy of that kind would work, particularly as the city’s operational fund faces shortfalls each year into the future, according to city estimates.

The general fund faces around a $2 million shortfall in 2019.

In the meantime, Van Valkenburgh said the department is actively seeking a new carrier for the facility after Delta’s untimely departure.

“We believe we have an exceptional airport, provide exceptional services, and the region that could sustain their operations,” he said.

Exemptions out?

Another drain on revenue has been stagnant parking fees, which the city tied to an increasing number of state-granted exemptions for certain veteran motorists. According to a city PowerPoint presentation to the council June 12, the airport loses around 43 percent of its parking revenue each year to the exemptions — or 11 percent of the airport’s revenues on the whole.

In fiscal year 2017, those exemptions added up to $306,832 in lost revenue, a $52,000 increase from the year before.

The city said it honors a slew of exemptions outlined in Texas Transportation Code Section 681.008 — which originally included just two exempt categories when the bill was passed in 1995.

Today the section includes 23 exemptions, all of which the city informally honored until they were codified by council vote in June 2015. The council voted 4-1 to approve the exemptions with council members Jose Segarra, Jim Kilpatrick, Shirley Fleming and Brockley Moore voted in support. Councilman Jonathan Okray voted against and council members Juan Rivera and Elizabeth Blackstone were not in attendance.

For veterans, the airport offers a range of complimentary parking for motorists displaying tags as at least 50-percent disabled veterans, Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of war, Pearl Harbor survivors or Purple Heart recipients.

Other exemptions include license plates for recipients of the Air Medal, Bronze Star, Bronze Star with “V,” Defense Superior Service Medal, Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldiers Medal, Navy and Marine Corps medal, Coast Guard and Airman’s Medal, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and plates for World War II veterans and surviving spouses of any exempt plate.

On Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Kilpatrick proposed eliminating all but five of those exemptions, keeping complimentary parking for disabled veterans, Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of war, Pearl Harbor survivors and Purple Heart recipients.

In that scenario, it’s unclear how much of the $306,832 in lost revenue would be recouped since the city estimates the vast majority of exempt parking is claimed by disabled veterans.

Van Valkenburgh did not have a complete breakdown of specific exemption frequencies Tuesday.

According to the city, the average exempt motorist costs the city $36.35 on average for short- and long-term parking. The average duration of those stays are three to five days, Van Valkenburgh said.

The council is expected to further discuss eliminating the exemptions throughout the summer leading into budget deliberations. | 254-501-7567

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