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Some representatives say they're doing fine; others say they're struggling due to COVID-19 pandemic

PMG FILE PHOTO - Fuel and repair businesses are struggling more than flight schools and an a kit airplane operation.

When asked to describe the atmosphere at the Aurora Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, different business representatives provide different answers. Some say things have slowed considerably, while others say business at the state airport continues relatively apace. In some cases, their outlook on the overall atmosphere reflected their level of anxiety about their own business.

"It feels less busy," said David Waggoner, the owner of Willamette Aviation Services. "This is tough on everyone — small businesses everywhere, the general population. It's the kind of thing we hope we get sorted out soon."

"Aside from the fact we had to send office workers home to work at home, it's been pretty much business as normal for Van's Aircraft. We have been very fortunate," said Van's Aircraft President Mitchell Lock.

Fuel operations experience decline

With more private citizens and businesses (the airport doesn't attract commercial flights) reluctant to fly during the pandemic, fewer planes fly in and out of the airport. In turn, there are fewer opportunities for fuel sales.

Waggoner, who sells fuel to aircraft owners at the airport as well as owning a flight school, said sales are down about 40% from this time last year.

"The bulk of our (fuel) business goes to our flight school and individual aircraft owners and both are pretty well heeding government's executive orders and staying home," he said.

Josh Lewis, the general manager of Lynx, said that fuel sales were down by 80% from the previous year in March and April. Now, he said they're inching closer to normal.

"The jet traffic has changed because there's nowhere for people to go with business closed down," Lewis said. "As businesses open and towns open they're going to fly now."

Hobbyist business doing well

On the other hand, Lock said business at Van's Aircraft has actually spiked during the pandemic. The international operation sells kits for mostly higher income people to build their own small aircrafts. Lock surmised that people who benefited from the steady economic surge following the Great Recession have enough money even during the downturn to make such discretionary purchases and have more time at home to tinker.

"What we sell is expensive toys," Lock said. "Apparently there are more people being home and customers being home and we've had an increase in sales. We haven't had to lay anyone off and production is going (strong)."

However, Bruce Bennett, who sells aircrafts through his business, Aurora Aviation, said recreational aircraft sales have declined.

"People in the past had extra income for recreational flying, just flying for pleasure. Those people are a lot tighter on their expenses," he said.

Flight schools have more limited operation

As for flight schools, operations continue amid precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and with individual rather than group lessons.

Danny Smith, a flight instructor for Aurora Flight Training, said the lack of group lessons and classes hasn't impacted business and that demand for both personal and professional training is up from previous years.

"It certainly has changed the way we operate but in terms of the number of customers, we haven't seen a drop off for that because the industry itself is still in such high demand," Smith said.

Waggoner, however, said that less people have signed up for his flight school recently than in the past.

"It's (the pandemic) definitely put a strain on the business no question about it," he said.

Repair business fluctuates

Metal Innovations, which repairs planes, also faced economic hardship at the beginning of the crisis due to a decline in air carrier operations. The cargo side of the business was essentially its only source of revenue for a couple months, according to CEO and owner Kim Wilmes.

"Right at the get-go air carriers put everything on hold. One carrier filed for bankruptcy in the first couple weeks. It was challenging. They were some of our larger customers," Wilmes said.

She also said that supply chain disruptions for items like metal, fasteners and aircraft parts have made business more challenging, and Metal Innovations had to send manuals to international customers rather than flying employees to locations to help customers make repairs.

On the bright side, Wilmes said the business benefited from a federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program and air carrier business is returning.

"PPE was absolutely critical to keep us being able to provide those services, stay employed, get those benefits and us being able to support operations to cargo carriers and now air carriers that were starting again," she said.

Despite economic anxiety among some Aurora Airport representatives and the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, Bennett is optimistic about the airport's future.

"I do see a bright future," he said. "It might be a long time, but as people do start traveling again, the fact that general aviation aircraft are safer (than commercial aircraft) as far as COVID because you're not sitting with three other strangers, I imagine business aviation will pick back up again."


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