PORT ANGELES — Manually tracking aircraft traffic at William R. Fairchild International Airport is going the way of vacuum tubes, biplanes and leather flight helmets.
On Nov. 1, a VirTower automated tracking system will replace visually tallying takeoffs and landings and provide the Port of Port Angeles with detailed information about activity at the airport.
“This is something the port undertook to simplify operations at Fairchild and be able to keep track of aircraft movement across the airfield,” Executive Director Paul Jarkiewicz said.
“It will also capture which runway are they using, 09/27 or the crosswind runway 1331. It also captures the taxiways they use. Are they coming over from customs clearance? Are they a domestic aircraft that’s parking for the night?”
VirTower uses a virtual geofence around an airfield to detect aircraft based on the signals transmitted from their transponders and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). The system collects information in real time the port can use to make better data-driven management and operations decisions.
Jarkiewicz said the port did not know exactly how much revenue it is currently missing out on with its present monitoring system. However, the VirTower will enable it to more accurately manage landing, take off, touch and go and other fees for private and commercial aircraft.
He said he believed VirTower would easily pay for the $5,000 cost to install it and the monthly subscription fee of about $500.
Implementing the system will not change the airport’s current practice of not charging fees for hangar and tie-down tenants, Rite Bros. Aircraft or Dash Air Shuttle.
Accurately tracking the volume of runway and taxiway crossings is also important in light of this summer’s resurfacing, repainting and grooving project and updates to the Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System with Runway Alignment Indicator Lights (MASLR) that received funding from the FAA and support from the state Department of Transportation. The total cost for the projects was about $8.1 million, with 90 percent of the funding — about 6.8 million — coming from the FAA.
“With that investment, it became really apparent to us that we need to make sure that we’re capturing all of the movements so we can justify that investment,” Jarkiewicz said. “The team does a fantastic job doing what they do, but there’s certain things that we don’t know.”
In the draft of the 2024 operating budget that port commissioners reviewed at their Oct. 24 meeting, the airport was projected to generate about 11 percent more revenue this year ($458,003) than anticipated ($413,312), and expenses ($500,953) were about 17 percent less than anticipated ($606,558). In 2024, the airport is projected to generate slightly more revenue ($472,644) and have higher expenses ($550,340).
The airport also will have a dedicated manager in 2024. The port is dividing the airport and marina manager role into two positions, with Jon Picker remaining as airport manager and the port hiring a dedicated marina manager.
The proposed budget includes nine new positions in 2024, bringing the number of full-time port employees to 49.
Commissioner Colleen McAleer said she was concerned about increasing staff at a time when revenues from some of the port’s business lines, such as the log yard, were anticipated to be less than anticipated.
“That’s a lot of new employees,” McAleer said. “What will that do for us?”
Jarkiewicz said the hiring is part of an effort on the part of the port, encouraged by commissioners, to perform more tasks in-house rather than rely on contractors and to stay ahead of maintenance and repairs.
“We just didn’t have the bandwidth to go out and cover all of the various operations that we have and do the things we needed to be doing,” Jarkewicz said.
Hiring more staff is also necessary if the port wants to continue to grow its businesses, he said.
“If we don’t tend to the customers we have now and continue the volume we’ve built in 2023, we won’t be able to sustain it in 2024,” Jarkiewicz said.
McAleer said she agreed that investing in more staff is important in moving the port’s business ahead.
“We need to grow to get out of this,” McAleer said, adding, “If I support this, I want to see improvement.”
Commissioners approved 2-1 the purchase of property on Marine Drive across the street from the future Marine Trade Center (MTC) for $225,000, below its assessed value of $292,508. The two parcels of about 21,344 square feet are adjacent to property the port already owns and will be available as parking or for another use when the MTC becomes fully operational.
Commissioners Connie Beauvais and Steve Burke voted for the measure, while McAleer voted against it, saying she believed the port was overpaying for the property.
A public hearing on the 2024 budget will be held at 9 a.m. on Nov. 7 at the port’s offices at 338 W. First St. The meeting also will be available via Zoom.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.