The Case For Albert Whitted Airport

After decades of wrangling, the time has finally arrived to determine the fate of St. Petersburg’s downtown airport. Will it remain an airport forever? Or will it become the city’s 138th park? Voters decide in a Nov. 4 referendum. What follows is the side of the story you haven’t heard much from other media, especially the St. Petersburg Times, which has been an opponent of the airport for generations. This is ...

The Case For Albert Whitted Airport

Seventy-five-year-old Albert Whitted, situated on 120 acres of prime downtown waterfront, is a unique St. Petersburg asset. A general aviation airport — one that caters to all air travel other than commercial airlines — is a standard amenity for cities the size of St. Pete, even for most cities half the size of St. Pete. It's like a marina, a golf course. A park. Tampa, for instance, has two general aviation airports.

Albert Whitted is a solid contributor to the city's economy. It attracts business. It adds to the area's array of transportation options. It's home to a variety of important companies and services. It will be an invaluable facility in the event of a natural disaster. And, perhaps most intriguing, the airport could end up a much bigger player in the transportation mix if certain anticipated trends in aviation come to pass in the next couple of decades.

Then why do so many people, including the city's most influential newspaper, want it closed?

Albert Whitted handles roughly 100,000 takeoffs and landings per year, five times more than the average general aviation airport. Nearly half of these operations originate from elsewhere, usually as business trips. Most of the airport's approximately 180 planes are single-engine prop jobs. It currently houses one small jet.

A 1999 city-commissioned study said that Whitted Airport had a $21-million impact on the local economy and supported more than 300 jobs. Airport proponents maintain that those numbers would significantly increase if the city would reverse years of neglect and commit to transforming the dilapidated air depot into a first-rate facility.

A variety of businesses use the airport for regular transportation. Bay Area Flying Service, Albert Whitted's largest tenant, counts among its clients Arthur Rutenberg Homes, Derby Lane, Eckerd College, the Holland & Knight law firm, Pepin Distributors, the Bollitieri Tennis Academy and scores of others. While the facility doesn't rival St. Pete/Clearwater Airport in jetting around big corporate honchos, it does provide a valuable tool for small and medium-size businesses in St. Petersburg.

Whitted also is home to various other activities. Bayflite helicopters park and get serviced there, as do choppers from a number of local TV stations. Companies service, sell, modify and charter aircraft out of Albert Whitted. It's a busy hub for flight training. The Civil Patrol Search and Rescue, a volunteer group, is based at the airport. Sightseeing bi-plane rides emanate from the facility. The Advertising Air Force, which flies banners around the area, headquarters at Whitted.

The airport also will be a crucial asset if a major hurricane rampages through the area. "In South Florida after the major hurricane, the general aviation airports were the first facilities that were open to bring in supplies," says Bill Ashbaker, state aviation manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. "It's foolish for a community not to appreciate that aspect."

Perhaps the most abstract, and in some ways most interesting, reason to save Albert Whitted involves the not-too-distant future. The commercial airlines' "hub-and-spoke" system is widely regarded as slow, antiquated and nearly maxxed out. An article last year in Popular Science said that a trip in a commercial jet averages just 88 miles per hour, door to door. That inefficiency is obviously most pronounced on shorter flights, which an airport like Albert Whitted is ideally positioned to help remedy.

In fact, business travelers have been looking to private air travel more, and aviation experts say the trend will increase. They envision a day when busy execs scoot from city to city in small, quiet jets, touching down at general aviation airports and whisking off to meetings. They see affordable air taxis that can provide service to any of the more than 5,000 public-use airports in the country.

This is not just pie in the sky. NASA, the FAA, and dozens of aviation-related agencies, businesses and universities have developed the Small Airport Transportation System (SATS), with $69-million in funding over the next few years. Its aim is to create a veritable interstate highway system in the sky. Crucial to the network are powerful computers that would coordinate flight plans and help fly the aircraft. No air traffic control towers would be needed. Along with SATS comes a new breed of efficient, cheaper "microjets" that would drastically reduce the cost (and noise) of small aviation. They'll also require shorter runways. Thus far, prototypes have been completed and companies are taking orders. One model, the Eclipse 500, should be certified to fly in December.