Manager – Tipton Airport

Taking to the skies was always part of the plan for Michael Wassel. That plan began in fine order, as he attended the University of Miami on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, graduated with a Business Administration degree was commissioned into the Air Force.

But then came a hitch: He didn’t complete the Air Force’s Undergraduate Pilot Training Program due to a medical issue, so he spent seven years on active duty as a comptroller/ executive officer for the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, in Anchorage, Alaska. Separated from the Air Force in 1986, he kept his dream alive by serving as the deputy director of the Finance and Administration Division at the then-National Airport, in Washington, D.C., overseeing airline leasing, rental car concessions, parking and taxicab operations, as well as the airport’s budget.

In 1999, he came to Anne Arundel County to join the just-established Tipton Airport Authority to oversee the reopening (which Howard County once contemplated participating in) of the 350-acre former military facility as a public-use airport. Since then, the airport has reached annual revenues of $1.9 million and operating expenses of approximately $1.4 million, with the balance of funds being used for debt service and capital improvements.

What are your current usage figures and how have they evolved over 25 years?

During our first winter of operation in 1999, we had three tie-downs. That was it. We also had four large hangars available that could hold six planes each, but each required renovation. Today, we have 115 based aircraft, which includes tie-downs, with 18 planes from that total in three of our four hangars, all of which have been renovated.

How much does it cost to tie down your plane at Tipton?

It costs $88 per month, with the hangars varying in price. The large 12,000-square-footers are $650 per month and include electrical, heat, rest rooms, etc. That’s where many of our business clients keep their planes. The smaller T-hangars that we built in 2015 are much smaller and run $550 per month.

What are the usage numbers for the T-hangars?

They’re at 100% capacity. We have 122 potential users who are on our waiting list and very little turnover as few as one or two a year.

When will more T-hangars be built?

We’re in the preliminary planning stages for two hangar projects that will add potentially add 36 T-hangars. The other hangar project we’re looking at is the construction of up to seven box hangars for larger aircraft. We’re probably two to three years out from having them built.

How many users are private as opposed to business clients?

The vast majority of our based aircraft, about 80%, are private users. However, about 65% of our revenue comes from business users.

How do you disperse your budget?

Our gross revenues cover salaries, facilities maintenance, insurance, marketing, health care, legal expenses, training and snow removal. Snow removal is our financial wild card; it has cost us as much as $120,000 per year, but has been less than $10,000 combined in recent years.

How much of Tipton’s property is in a floodplain?

It’s hard to quantify, but nothing has been built on the western side of the airport other than what the Army left us when the TAA took over.

What does the federal government lease on Tipton’s grounds?

There is one 20,000-square-foot building on the west side of the facility that we didn’t have a use for that the federal government uses for storage, which it’s done for about 18 years.

Have there been many safety issues concerning unexploded ordnance, tree height, etc.?

We have not had any safety issues concerning unexploded ordnance. The Army cleared the property before it was transferred to the TAA. However, as an ongoing safety practice, we’re required to provide Unexploded Ordnance screening as part of any excavation. Regarding the aircraft approach paths that the FAA establishes for airports, the trees surrounding Tipton do not present a current issue, though we continue to monitor growth and will address this topic as needed.

What’s the latest on the runway expansion?

 It’s still a pipedream at this point because we have land use compatibility issues with the neighboring federal property owner. But we’re still pursuing it.

How long is your runway and what would be an ideal runway length?

It’s currently 3,000 feet and we are trying to extend it to 4,200 feet. The Maryland Aviation System Plan indicates that we should have it at 5,000 feet; to accommodate the market, 5,000 feet would be ideal because we are classified as a reliever airport for and that would allow us to accommodate small-to-medium-sized business jets, thus offering more relief to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

When will work begin on the new terminal and what will it include?

We have finished the design stage on a $4 million, 6,000-square-foot building that will be constructed to the immediate west of the current structure, which was built in the early 1960s. It will include a larger lobby for the pilots and transient customers, plus increased office space. Our current space is one-third of what’s in the plan.

Where is the money coming from for the improvements?

The money for the design and construction of the recent hangar rehabilitation and roadway reconstruction, as well as the upcoming terminal construction, came from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Military Airport Program, which is designated for former military airports.

What would be the ideal amount of usage for Tipton, given its capacity?

We are allowed by the deed from the Army to accommodate up to 300 based aircraft, so we’re not even at half of our capacity. Having more hangar space will help eventually attract more users, but the most important upgrade we need is that additional runway length.

How is the airport marketed?

Via our website, but we’re also working on expanding our media presence and staying active with local business organizations like the BWI Business Partnership, the Central Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the American Association of Airport Executives. We also host events for students and various other organizations.

What’s the latest on a potential partnership with the AACPS and BWI Marshall on a training program?

 AACPS, as far as I know, is still going through the appropriate processes to establish that program with the county and the state. We’re ready to support that effort as soon as we can, especially given the need in our industry for mechanics and other professionals.

Given the loss of Bowie’s Freeway Airport (which is slated for development), do you think we’ll see fewer general aviation airports in the future?

I think that’s the general trend, but general aviation airports aren’t going away, either. The need still exists and they’re also great places for training tomorrow’s workforce for military, corporate and airline pilots, mechanics, facilities operators, etc.

What don’t people understand about the importance of general aviation airports?

Many people have the perception that they’re just a place for an expensive hobby, but we provide training. We also provide facilities for public support agencies like the Anne Arundel County Police, Washington Hospital Center, WRC-TV and local businesses.

To learn more about Wassel’s views concerning Tipton’s new terminal design, marketing the airport and a potential partnership with Anne Arundel County Public Schools, read the remainder of this interview at bizmonthly.com.