A fleet of private planes will descend on Santa Fe in mid-September, bringing literal and figurative buzz to an airport that's been craving it for years.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is having a "fly-in" event on Sept. 14 and 15, one of four such events held each year to attract members—and the general public—in lieu of a national convention.
The two-day expo, which is mostly free, is the first big public event of new airport manager Mark Baca’s tenure. A veteran of airport operations since the 1990s, Baca was appointed to the position this summer. The city’s last full-time airport manager, Cameron Humphres, guided the airport through some turbulent times, set out a long-term plan and boosted the facility’s profile before leaving, in part because of disagreements with the Airport Advisory Board.
That body is also undergoing a renovation of sorts, with five new members appointed by the mayor in early June. There are seven people in the advisory group. For the first time, there's also a city councilor assigned to the board: District 4's Mike Harris, who chairs the panel.
The board changes mean a bit of an administrative shakeup, but Harris and others are optimistic they have the right group to lead them into the next phase of what's now called the Santa Fe Regional Airport (the city recently dropped "municipal" in favor of a name with broader appeal).
"We thought it would be good to get a [city] councilor and have a liaison to really get a good idea of how we wanted to move forward," Baca tells SFR, adding that he hopes an energetic board will pitch the airport as an economic driver for the city's economy.
When the AOPA fly-in event begins next month, pilots will land on an airfield that's in the midst of a serious sprucing-up. The runway is being improved, as is a primary taxiway that had begun to feel a little too much like a roller coaster. The projects total about $4.6 million, with much of that cost borne by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Though it won't impact most visitors for the fly-in, the airport also sports a new baggage scanner, which will eliminate the need for TSA personnel to rifle through every piece of luggage. Along with a body scanner, the equipment modernizes and vastly speeds up check-in for those flying out of the airport and its modest terminal. Longer-term plans to upsize the terminal that were floated in 2017 got a hard landing and appear to have been scrapped in favor of remodeling the existing facility and updating both vehicle parking and traffic flow.
Commercial flights, though, make up just a tiny fraction of the airport's traffic. Better than 90 percent of flights in and out of Santa Fe are private planes. That's the crowd the AOPA is after.
While the flyers' organization is always happy to boost its membership rolls, every seminar, talk, meal and party over the two days is open to the public. The airport's two fixed-base operators (companies that service private aircraft) have donated hangar space for exhibits, including an aircraft display.
The in-depth workshops on Friday will cost $99 and are geared toward pilots and owners. The more public-facing events are a "barnstormers" hangar party on Friday night and a series of exhibits and talks on Saturday, including one on how to become a pilot. Baca says there will be a kids' zone that day from 9 am to 2 pm.
The new airport manager isn't a pilot himself, though he says that's not terribly unusual—he can think of five previous managers who haven't had a pilot's license—and you don't have to fly a plane to know how to run an airport.
"I was learning from different bosses who came through here, just kind of learning the ins and outs of the FAA and operations," Baca says. "I took to it like a moth to a flame."
Baca will have plenty to keep him busy in the immediate future, and says the AOPA is looking for volunteers to help direct traffic both on and off the tarmac during the leadup to the fly-in and as it winds down on Saturday night into Sunday.
With several hundred pilots coming in and out of town, it promises to be a busy weekend—perhaps with additional annoyance for people who aren't wild about air traffic over their homes. Baca knows he's likely to get a few calls, but is also hopeful some of those people will show up to see what's happening next door.