Lanett city council discusses plans for airport leadership

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2024

LANETT — Members of the Lanett City Council met in a Monday afternoon work session to receive input from a newly organized airport committee. Members of that committee recently made a trip to Prattville to see how a medium-sized city runs its airport.

Discussing that visit with the council were Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA) Executive Director Chris Busby, Bill Scott, Mike Ballard and Dan DeJournette. Also making the trip was Council Member Tifton Dobbs.

The council is trying to decide whether to have an airport manager run the airport, have an airport authority doing that or contract it out to what’s known as a fixed base operator, or FBO.

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Richard Carter served as the manager in 2023 but resigned to take a job with the Clayton County, Georgia Police Department. He took that job because it gave him ample opportunities to fly a plane or helicopter, and flying is his first love. He is staying on with the airport on a part-time basis until the council decides how it’s to be run in the future.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that someone be at an airport on a regular basis to check on fuel, to see if the runway lights are working properly, meet with pilots who land and so on.

Bill Scott told the council that the committee went to Prattville last Friday and were most impressed with what they saw. “We met twice before the trip,” he said. “We are fortunate to have Lanett airport. It’s one of the best around this region. In our meetings we discussed the opportunities it presents and the problems that need to be overcome. There are some short-term problems that that could be dealt with over a few weeks or months. It could take longer to put things in place to do it the right way. We must be sure we are meeting the requirements of the FAA and the Alabama Department of Transportation.”

Scott said there’s an immediate need to make sure someone is overlooking operations on a daily basis. Safety should always be the top priority with any airport, Scott said. This involves making sure local fire departments have been adequately trained in knowing how to deal with an aviation-related accident. “We need to encourage them to do that,” he said.

Scott added said a long-term goal concerns whether the airport should be run by a city department or to have an airport authority. There’s also a need to market what’s there in the way of a regional airport. It would be a good idea, for example, to have some signs on I-85 getting it across that there’s an airport at the next exit.

“If done right, this airport will have long-term benefits for our local economy,” Scott said. “It will help create jobs and generate business activity with corporate planes coming in. There could be some bad consequences if we don’t act quickly. The airport is a great asset, but there are liabilities. It’s a great thing for the community, but we could be one accident away from people being hurt or killed.”

That could mean massive lawsuits against the city and the FAA closing the airport.

“It would be very embarrassing for something like that to happen,” Scott said.

Close to $20 million has been invested in the development of Lanett Regional. A 3,100-foot runway was closed in favor of building a new one that’s more than a mile in length. There’s a nice new terminal in place that’s now serving as the office for the CCDA. Improvements are continuing for the taxiway and apron.

Scott emphasized the importance of doing this the right way. “I have lived in Lanett for 25 years,” he said. “I know how important it is to seek grants for projects like a new city park. If we mess this up it will make it harder to get grants for any project.”

Councilman Dobbs said that last Friday’s trip had been eyeopening for him. “It was educational,” he said. “I have a new perspective on having a city FBO or a contracted one. The impression I got in Prattville is that an authority is the best way to go. City officials aren’t that concerned with making money off their airport. They just want to make sure a contracted FBO is running it properly.”

Dobbs said that Prattville had done great work in promoting its airport and getting the public involved with such events as an egg drop from a helicopter at Easter and having Santa Claus arrive by plane during he Christmas season. This draws big crowds and has everyone excited about what’s going on.

Dobbs said he wasn’t opposed to having a contracted FBO but that they should be an advisory board governing operations. That board, he said, should have at least one member of the council.

“We were wonderfully received in Prattville,” said Mike Ballard. “I saw some good things on how they were involving the community with their airport. From that I could see what a great opportunity we have to have a better place to live and work by making the most of this airport. We need to involve people in all walks of life. They have done a great job of that in Prattville.”

There are two training schools operating out of the Prattville airport, and there’s lots of touch-and-go sessions with pilots learning to take off and land.

The committee will soon visit the airport in Cullman, Alabama. “It’s going to be hard to beat what we saw in Prattville,” Ballard said.

DeJournette said that Lanett airport can be the catalyst for future growth for not just Lanett but also for Valley, West Point and the entire local area. He suggested making a stronger effort to promote Lanett Regional on social media to engage youth on the opportunities provided at the airport. Southern Union State Community College, for example, is starting an aviation program. This could lead to careers in the field of aviation. “The airport can be a way of getting our young people to have a role in moving the city forward,” DeJournette said. “We can reach people in so many ways with the airport.”

Council Member Tony Malone said the city needs to “get its ducks in a row” in making the right decisions and in promoting the airport. “We need a safety program in place,” he said. “We need an airport manager or an advisory board to run it for us.”

The city is advertising for a manager to succeed Richard Carter. Mayor Heard said that three applications have come in thus far.

Scott pointed out that an airport authority runs the airport in Prattville. “There’s lots of ways to set it up,” he said.

“An authority sets up policies, the rules and provides oversight,” DeJournette said. “The FBO is responsible for compliance of the regulations. They have a public relations officer who comes up with ways of getting youth involved, corporate outreach and the like.”

Chris Busby said that what needs to be done now all boils down to structure. “Will it be an authority or a city department?” he asked. “You can contract with an FBO or create one. Prattville created an FBO with local people who are devoting their time on behalf of the city. They won a competitive bid to do it. An FBO can be a national company, a regional one or can be done by local people. What’s important now is to have the structure under which they operate. Let’s determine that structure first. A big thing for Prattville is that they made sure there’s a support system and hierarchy in place.”

Busby said the Prattville airport has a four or five person staff, and somebody’s there all the time. “It’s important to have a team,” he said. “You don’t need to have one person you expect everything from. Each person on the staff has different responsibilities. One person can’t do it all.”

Busby said he would like for at least one council member to accompany the committee on its upcoming trip to Cullman.

Council Member Angelia Thomas thanked members of the committee for what they are doing. “I’m all for this airport and for doing things the right way,” she said. “When Richard resigned in December we were told we needed to get someone in there fast, that they have to take care of things every day. We thank Richard for staying with us part time until we hire a successor.”

Thomas said she was worrying about what appears to be foot dragging in the way of not getting hangars built and not having a manager. “We need to have deadlines on getting things done,” she said. “We need to have a structure in place to get things done. We thank the committee for what you are doing. We are listening to your suggestions. We have never run an airport before. We need to take care of this soon. We don’t need to be three or four months down the road and in the same situation.”

Mayor Heard said he wanted to hear from all council members on this.

Council Member Dobbs said it was important to avoid getting the cart before the horse. “We need to have structure in place pretty fast,” he said. “We need to have a manager or an FBO in place . We still have Richard Carter out there on a part time basis, and I think we may be getting some anxiety over him leaving. He is still checking fuel every day. We are still taking about building hangars and having a new road going out there.”

Thomas suggested hiring someone to take care of the daily routines and work toward having the right structure. “We want to thank the committee,” she said. “You have made a difference. This is something we need to get done.”

DeJournette said that from what he’s seen the airports that are working well are those with airport authorities.

An airport authority, he said, hires an airport manager to take care of the daily routines and make sure the FBO is doing its job of selling gas and parking planes. “Ten years ago an FBO really got things turned around at the Shelby County airport,” he said “An FBO can work for an authority. LaGrange has an airport authority that works extremely well.”

Malone asked City Attorney Stanley Gray to make sure the city would be on solid legal grounds in whatever did in managing the airport. Gray agreed with that.

“We just need to make sure someone is out there right now taking care of things on a temporary basis,” DeJournette said. “We need people who have an aviation mindset. It will be extremely difficult to get a really good airport manager if they think they are walking into an unstable situation. You can get the right person if you have the right structure in place.”

Gray suggested having a list of options to consider. “If we can see several options to know what we can be getting into,” he said. “We need a framework to choose from the many options we have been looking at.”

Busby said he could get together such a list for the council but he felt that two basic options should be looked at – either a new city department or an authority. He said that Prattville had a good cross section of the community on its seven-member authority. Among them was a local banker, farmer, pilot and a council member.

Mayor Heard asked members of the council to consider what had been discussed in the work session and to be looking toward specific recommendations at a work session to be held prior to the February 19th council meeting.

Attorney Gray said he would have some options by then. The committee will have visited the airport in Cullman by that time and can provide more input on what they saw there.