Pilots Accuse California County of Neglecting Airport While Asking for Massive Rent Increase

The only general aviation FBO in Humboldt County has closed after facing a 500 percent jump.

A look at Murray Field in Humboldt County, California. [Photo: Gene Joyce]

Could your small business absorb a 500 percent increase in rent? Kyle Gable, the owner of Northern Air, the only general aviation FBO in Humboldt County, California, says no, he can’t, so he made the decision to close the FBO located at Murray Field (KEKA). 

In January, the county informed Gable that the rent would increase from $1,536 a month to $10,088 a month beginning March 1.

“That’s too much, it’s not worth it for the building, which is so deteriorated,” said Gable, adding that the FBO, which provided flight training, sold pilot supplies and fuel, “never really made any money.” 

Gable, 64, holds a pilot certificate in addition to an airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate with inspection authorization. He is the only A&P/IA in the county and stresses that he is still planning to operate the maintenance side of the business. 

The airport is one of six owned and operated by Humboldt County. For decades, the airports fell under the jurisdiction of the county’s department of public works, which according to Gables, “neglected the airports.”

Owner Kyle Gable decided to close Northern Air, the FBO at Murray Field. [Photo: Gene Joyce]

As an example, Gable describes the above-ground fuel tank as “rotting from years of neglect.” Earlier this year, Gable discovered a hole in the tank, so he stopped refilling it and terminated fuel sales. When Humboldt County Aviation Director Cody Roggatz called him to find out why the airport was no longer selling fuel, Gable said he told him about the leak and that the county was “negligent” in not providing a state and federal spill prevention program for the tank. 

At press time, the aerodrome airport fuel was NOTAM'd: Not available from January 6, 2022, until March 31, 2022.

Local pilots are up in arms about the loss of the FBO, the loss of available fuel, and the generally dilapidated state of the airport. Bill Wickman, a retired airline pilot and former member of the airport advisory board, suggested the county is "trying to kill general aviation in Humboldt County."

Pilots Swarm February Meeting

Wickman and several other local pilots publicly voiced their complaints at a February 22 meeting of the Humboldt County Aviation Advisory Committee. The meeting, held via Zoom, had 48 people in attendance, including a representative of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn, and Gable.

The committee’s purpose is to advise the county board of supervisors—many of whom are not aviators—about the needs of local and visiting pilots who utilize Humboldt County airports.

The meeting opened with a public comment period dominated by pilots based at Murray Field. 

"The county is raising the rent and cutting services."

Craig Hansen, pilot, speaking at a meeting of the Humboldt County Aviation Advisory Meeting

Craig Hansen, a pilot who has been based at KEKA since 1987, said he's noticed a steady decline in maintenance at the county-owned airport over the years. "The county is raising the rent and cutting services," he said.

Alex Stillman, a city council representative from nearby Arcata and the chairperson of the advisory committee, Roggatz, and Bohn reminded the pilots at the meeting that the airport's issues stretch back decades, so the current administration is not entirely to blame for the present situation.

Pilot and educator David Marshall responded by addressing Roggatz directly, mentioning the lack of hangar maintenance and issues with the fuel tank failure did not happen overnight. "These are events that could be seen coming. It should not be a surprise that the tanks were heading toward failure. It has been nearing the end of its useful life for years."

"There is a big hole in the fuel tank in need of patching because the county didn't keep up the maintenance," added pilot Brad Finney. "You are asking the pilots to pay for a mistake the county made —that is not acceptable."

Roggatz contends the rental increases are unrelated to the facilities issues at the airport. He said the rent at all six Humboldt County airports has been artificially low for years, because, in part, the airports were "neglected by the county.” 

When Roggatz was hired in 2018, one of the first tasks he faced was having the airport leases appraised, because he said, the lack of appraisal was in violation of requirements for FAA grant assurances. The county paid $300,000 to Aviation Management Consulting Group to evaluate the leases. The consulting group determined that the rent at Murray Field was not consistent with other airport facilities of similar size.

At the meeting, multiple pilots commented that the proposed 500 percent rent increase for Northern Air is untenable. They also noted that when the consultant group evaluated KEKA the airport still had a functioning FBO and fuel available. Now that both of these are gone, they said that the value of the airport has diminished. Hangar rental rates were not discussed at the meeting.

The hangar at Murray Field. [Photo: Gene Joyce]

"The issues are stacking up," said flight instructor Rose Hanan, who has spent the past 30 years teaching out of Northern Air. "Because the FBO is out of business, we have lost the weather cameras there, because the business supplied the internet for those cameras. This creates a safety hazard. We will have pilots with minimum fuel taking off in marginal VFR to get to KACV for fuel, and if it is IFR there, they will have to fly down to Rohnerville airport [a non-towered airport approximately 20 miles to the south] to get fuel."

Other pilots echoed Hanan's concerns about the potential for dicey marginal VFR fuel flights, a few suggesting that some pilots may attempt to avoid this situation by filling up jerry cans at another facility, then storing the fuel in their hangars, which could potentially create a fire hazard.

Roggatz tried to assure the pilots. He said he’s been in touch with entities who have expressed interest in making improvements at Murray Field, and that people would see positive changes in the next three to five months.

Where Is the FAA In All This?

Laurie J. Suttmeier, manager of the FAA's Airport's District Office in San Francisco, said the FAA has nothing to do with setting rental rates and/or conducting rental rate surveys. 

“Airport owners/sponsors may hire consultants to poll surrounding airports to see what their rental rates look like,” she said. “If there is a complaint that a sponsor is unfairly treated, such as not applying the rental rate increase to all tenants in an equitable manner or asking one sector of the tenants to pick up a larger share of the rent increase over other tenants, then we would request that the airport owner confirm for us how they set the rental rate structure and ensure that it is being applied to all users equitably."

Suttmeier noted the FAA does not monitor the condition of airport buildings and ramps. "We do ask for periodic reports on the condition of runways and taxiways and we work with airport operators to maintain the pavements in an improved, safe condition," Suttmeier said. 

Roggatz claims the county has been working with the FAA to improve the infrastructure at all Humboldt County airports, with much of the work being done at Humboldt County's largest airport, California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport (KACV). 

Among the infrastructure issues are centerline and touchdown zone lights at KACV, which, according to Roggatz, will have to be replaced because they are 1950s technology and the parts aren't available anymore.

Roggatz pointed to the positive changes at KACV, noting that the airport is now served by four carriers traveling to seven destinations including San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, and Palm Springs, and that the county is working to make the airport more attractive to general aviation pilots as well.

"We have improved tie-downs and markings in our GA areas at KACV.  We are improving our lighting infrastructure at our GA hangar area at KACV (expected completion in February 2022), and we are working together with local partners to try to develop a FBO at one of our airports,” Roggatz said in an email to FLYING. “I can’t disclose any more details on that one at this time as we are not prepared for an official announcement. But, we are working hard to get this exciting development completed and open to the public later in 2022."

FLYING made numerous attempts to reach the Board of Supervisors of Humboldt County to determine what repairs need to be and will be made at Murray Field; however, our calls and emails were not returned.

Kyle Gable says he is still planning to operate the maintenance side of his business. [Photo: Gene Joyce] 

History of Complaints

This isn’t the first time Humboldt County has come under fire for its airport operations. In 2017, an anonymous complaint was filed with the FAA, alleging that the county was violating FAA rules that put grant assurances in jeopardy. The charges included:

  • Inequitable leases
  • Failure to properly maintain the airport properties
  • Neglect in filing FAA financial reports 

According to the complaint, the county did not follow FAA regulations when applying for FAA grants because it was not in compliance with FAA rules. 

The complaint also alleged that the county public works department issued cheap lease agreements to private businesses and other departments not necessarily tied to aviation. In addition, the county did not oversee the collection of the rents. The FAA opened an investigation into the complaints and the county board of supervisors responded by creating the department of aviation and hiring Roggatz to untangle the mess. 

The FAA came back to the county with a laundry list of things that had to be addressed or else the county would be out of compliance and have to pay back $50 million in FAA grants. In January of this year, the complaint was dismissed without prejudice. 

Detail of mural "Murray Field Vintage 1930" by Duane Flatmo, Eureka, California. [Courtesy: Library of Congress]

About the Airport

Murray Field was established in 1919 by pilot Dayton Murray Sr., who was the first known pilot in Humboldt County. The airport sits on 131 acres just north of Eureka, built on land reclaimed from Humboldt Bay. Field elevation is a mere 7 feet above sea level. For most of its existence, Murray Field has been primarily used for flight training, cargo operations, and medical flights.

The county acquired the airport in the 1930s, building a hangar that still stands today. That hangar, along with a second rectangular structure, are the only buildings on site. Both are used by Northern Air. The original hangar has a leaky roof. The FBO office and pilot lounge also show their age. The building used to house the Hangar Café, which closed several years ago because the health department had issues with the building’s construction. Two weeks ago, Gable closed the FBO, locking the door to the building.

Roggatz said Gable has indicated that he would like to continue operating at KEKA to provide maintenance services and reduce his leasehold size. At present, the few CFIs Gable has left are scrambling to finish training their remaining students, staging out of the maintenance hangar.

What the Future May Hold

Acknowledging the need for fuel service at Murray Field, the county is investigating a self-serve fuel facility. That project should be moving forward in a couple of weeks, Roggatz said. Additionally, facilities improvements are planned for KACV, where an increase in passenger traffic is stressing the occupancy of the terminal building; and the parking lot and the infrastructure—including the runway and approach lights—need to be upgraded, he said. There are also plans to build a general aviation restroom beyond a porta-potty at KACV. 

"...we will be conducting a series of public meetings throughout 2022 to garner GA input and feedback on planned future projects."

Cody Roggatz, Humboldt County Aviation Director

"We have incorporated many of our GA users into those planning efforts already," Roggatz said. “And, we will be conducting a series of public meetings throughout 2022 to garner GA input and feedback on planned future projects. This planning effort will help us set priorities for projects at our six airports over the next 10- to 15-year window."

Wickman, however, is skeptical about improvements, especially for Murray Field. "We hear this same stuff all the time," he said. "We hear 'We're looking at it.' 'We're talking to people.' We've been hearing the same thing for years now, but nothing ever changes."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.
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