First Flight to Many Flights

Led by expansion at Meacham International Airport, Fort Worth’s city airports are strong and growing.

From the first airplane to land in Fort Worth to today’s modern city airports, we’ve embraced aviation — and that has been good for us.

On a windy Jan. 12, 1911, French pilot Roland G. Garros landed his Bleriot XL at the Fort Worth Driving Park, a racetrack near present-day Carroll and West 7th streets. That’s now the site of the city’s newest park — First Flight Park, dedicated 103 years to the day after Garros braved those high winds.

The legacy of that bit of promotion by Star-Telegram founder Amon G. Carter and other visionaries can be seen in Fort Worth’s city-owned airports — Meacham International Airport, Spinks Airport and Alliance Airport, and a share of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Meacham is the city’s oldest operating airport — dating to 1925. In March the airport broke ground for a new administration building, gutting the existing one for renovation, demolishing part of it and adding a floor in a $17.5 million project.

Rapid Growth You probably shouldn’t describe anything at an airport as “explosive,” but the redevelopment and expansion underway at Meacham is, shall we say, extensive and aggressive. “We’re only five miles from downtown Fort Worth, so anybody doing business in Fort Worth typically wants to fly into Meacham because it’s 15 minutes down the road, and you’re in downtown,” said Jeff Kloska, the airport manager.

In February the Fort Worth City Council voted to close an unused runway, freeing up space for hangars for up to 150 aircraft that could generate $840,000 a year. The council also approved initial design money for a proposed 10-bay hangar at Spinks Airport, 13 miles south of downtown. Spinks has operated in the red — sustained by Meacham — since it opened in 1988, but officials think the new hangars and the business they will generate will make the airport self-sustaining within five years. Both airports serve what is described as general aviation, a broad category that covers aircraft from gliders to large jets that are not operated by airlines, charter operators or the military. Alliance is primarily an industrial airport, operated by Alliance Air Services, which is under contract to manage the day-to-day operations of the airport.

“Meacham has momentum at an organic level,” said Bill Welstead, director of aviation for Fort Worth, who oversees all city-owned airports. “The businesses at Meacham are competitive, while we focus on minimizing rates and expanding the opportunities for growth. It’s important that we appreciate the rich history of Meacham, but our goals are focused on the future.”

American Aero General Manager Riggs Brown stands next to a client’s Falcon 50 airplane in one of the newest hangars at Meacham International Airport. Photo courtesy American Aero FTW

Major Operators Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) — a term dating from 1926 — provide services to pilots and owners that can vary from fueling and enclosed or outdoor storage to luxury accommodations. They lease space from airports and, in some cases, build infrastructure in exchange for long-term leases. There are three at Meacham: American Aero FTW, Cornerstone Air Center and Texas Jet.

American Aero will be the primary tenant in the new administration building. The company is building 100,000 square feet of new, state-of-the-art LEED certified hangars, and has recently purchased 64,000 square feet of additional hangar space. Eventually American Aero will operate 11 hangars and offer more than 290,000 square feet of hangar plus associated office space. “We share the city’s vision for this airport, and we are excited about our plans for building a world-class FBO,” said Riggs Brown, American Aero general manager. “We are aggressively expanding because we believe there is enormous potential for growth at this airport.”

Cornerstone Air Center is the new kid on the block and has caught the cowboy bug. “Since Cornerstone is located less than one and a half miles from the Stockyards, the owners chose to play off ‘Where the West Begins,’ ” said Kara Shryock, the customer service manager. That means a mix of modern and Western décor, including a cowhide rug, a longhorn painting, “the biggest pilot media room in Texas” and cowgirl boots for the customer service representatives. “The awesome thing about Meacham is there are no crowds,” she said. “These private flyers really feel like they are flying into their own private airport, and it’s just minutes from downtown.”

Reed Pigman started Texas Jet in 1978 and initially built two hangars totaling 60,000 square feet. Since then, Texas Jet has either built or acquired the leases on 20 other hangars, and now subleases and operates 23 hangars totaling about 445,000 square feet. “In 2014, we razed a 14,000-square-foot hangar built in 1957 and have replaced it with a 28,000-square-foot facility for Executive AirShare, one of our long-time tenants,” Pigman said.

Keith D. Plumb (left), Executive AirShare president and CEO, and J. Michael McMillan, Executive AirShare Regional Vice President of Sales at Meacham. Photo courtesy Executive AirShare

“Fort Worth has been a key market for Executive Flight Services since 1991, and having a major flight operations, aircraft management and maintenance center at Meacham has been a key factor in Executive AirShare becoming the fourth-largest fractional aircraft ownership company in the country,” said Keith D. Plumb, president and CEO of Executive AirShare. “Fort Worth will continue to play a key role as we expand our business throughout Texas and into new markets.” The Kansas City, Mo., company’s shareholders have use of a private aircraft for a set number of days per year, based on share of ownership.

Texas Jet has a garage for its valet service coming online this year and has replaced the concrete on 200,000 square feet of surface parking for aircraft. “We credit our success and related expansion over the years to the vitality of the Fort Worth economy and our 35 dedicated ladies and gentlemen who exemplify our ‘Culture of Excellence,’ ” Pigman said.

Planning the Future “Each airport has its own strategic course at this point, which was a challenge to implement, as many didn’t understand the unique focus points of each airport,” said Welstead. “The overriding goal for each airport within the system is to be run as efficiently as a private business. The Fort Worth airport system is financially strong, in large part, due to its culture of continuous refinement and partnerships with the private industry.”

Part of that strength comes from the Barnett Shale. By Federal Aviation Administration regulations, money from airport mineral leases is restricted to airport use. “We currently have just over $4 million in usable gas well funds. All of these funds are programmed for capital projects,” said Welstead. That’s key, said Kloska. “Use that money for revenue-generating items. Never use it for operating expenses,” he said. “If you can use it for revenue production, when your gas well runs out, at least you’ve built something that’s generating revenue.”

Aviation is a cyclical industry and economy sensitive, Kloska said. “But typically, aviation is always the first thing to rebound. That’s definitely what we are seeing now after the recession. Our based aircraft number just topped 400 aircraft. We’re really excited about that,” Kloska said.

Aaron Barth, the airport manager at Spinks, says the new hangars will cut the field’s budget deficit almost in half. Hangars at the airport were built by private developers on land leased “for pennies per square foot, which is industry standard at most airports,” he said. “By our building and leasing space directly to the public, this will increase revenue at a much greater rate.”

Top of the Line The goal for Meacham is simple and direct — to be top tier. “We want to be in that level of general aviation airport, serving everybody from the small general aviation guys, all the way through corporate jets. We want to provide the best companies, the best maintenance; we want to have the best-looking airport, be the best maintained. That’s our vision,” Kloska said.

No story about Meacham would be complete without mentioning one specific hangar — the 1933 hangar that served as the first company-owned headquarters for the American Airways Southern Division, which soon after became American Airlines. The building has been lovingly restored by American Aero to preserve an important piece of aviation history in Fort Worth. That’s no surprise since owner Robert M. Bass is chairman emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.