For decades, the Gibbs family and Montgomery Field, the city-owned airport on Kearny Mesa, have been joined at the hip. The family's concrete-block buildings and metal hangars, its gas pumps, taxiways, and tie-down areas, have been home to pilots of modest means.
Then, more than two years ago, in December 2002, the city of San Diego received the results of a "business plan" it had commissioned from Airport Business Solutions, a consulting company hired to guide the development of Montgomery Field. The plan did not bode well for Gibbs Flying Service.
"The current site reflects a business that has expanded over the years, resulting in a 'patchwork' layout of tie-downs, T-hangars, offices, corporate hangars and maintenance facilities," the report said. "While continuing to provide services to both based and transient customers, visibility and functionality to their market segment is challenged as a result of the awkward physical layout, the very cramped space, and the company's lack of visibility from the primary general aviation transient ramp."
Obviously, the consultant said, things would have to change. Along Aero Drive, which borders the airport on the south, the consultant recommended developing rows of new office buildings to occupy land now occupied by Gibbs. "With a realignment of the Gibbs leasehold, the City could seek developers to add additional commercial office space along the Aero Drive frontage. This would not only create a substantial revenue stream but would also create a buffer between flight activities and auto and pedestrian traffic, resulting in much-improved security in that portion of the Airport."
For the rest of the airport and its small and dilapidated 1970s-era terminal, the report recommended a complete overhaul, to be paid for by revenue from the new tenants. Corporate-jet hangars would be added and air traffic boosted, all to maximize the city's take. "It is our recommendation that the City should begin planning for a new, more functional terminal building that is accessible to all individuals on all floors. Based upon historic utilization, a large conference room is needed for public meetings, and additional leaseable office space could help defray the cost of the facility."
"The new facility should be a structure that welcomes the flying public and the local community. A viewing area for families and interested persons to observe aircraft operations could be added to the second floor, along with a public restaurant area for lease," the consultant went on. "It should be noted that this is the only structure ABS potentially recommends for City development, with all other structures representing 'Third-Party Development,' both for aviation and nonaviation facilities."
The study wasn't all bad news for Gibbs. The consultant concluded that the family had a good record of service at the field; the city should consider renewing the lease when it expired on May 31, 2005. "Gibbs occupies the largest leasehold site and is the oldest MYF [Montgomery Field] tenant, and they have also earned a reputation of respect from the MYF customer. While the current leasehold site needs to be redeveloped for maximum efficiency, safety, and security, the history of this tenant warrants consideration in any future lease opportunities."
But something strange happened after Airport Business Solutions submitted its report. The study received limited distribution and was never officially adopted by the city council. A year later, another consultant produced another master plan, which also has yet to find its way to the city council, ostensibly because environmental issues have not been resolved. During 2003 and 2004, despite Gibbs's proposals to the city and the first consultant's advice that Gibbs be permitted to bid on a new lease, the family never got the chance.
Last July, says Tracy Means, the city's airports director, she tried to alert members of the city council's land use committee that the Gibbs lease was soon up for renewal, but she was turned aside. Although she had prepared a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the consultants' development options, "They didn't want to listen to me," Means says. As a result, she adds, the planned public airing of Gibbs and the airport's future was never held.
Ignored by both the city council and the higher-ups in the city real estate department, Means says that last September she fired off what she describes as a confidential letter to her bosses, in which she gave her recommendations about what to do when the Gibbs lease ran out, but no action took place. Then in December, with just a few months left for the Gibbs family, Means says she began meeting privately with city council staff members, telling them that the city would make more money from a new tenant. "Nobody argued with that," she recalls. No public hearings were held.
This January, Buzz Gibbs, son of company founder Bill Gibbs, wrote Means a letter in which he asked to open negotiations for a new lease on the Gibbs Flying Service site, referred to by the city as "Lot 3." In a letter dated March 6, Means wrote back, saying, "Due to the uncertainty of the future development of Lot 3, we are unable to consider your proposal at this time. Once the disposition of Lot 3 has been determined, we will re-evaluate your proposal."
Was a dark hand at work? Was a politically connected new tenant waiting in the wings? Or did the city's real estate department itself plan to run Gibbs Flying Service?
On April 13, Gibbs, along with many concerned pilots, presented his case to the city council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee. The committee was sympathetic. Last Friday, Gibbs learned that the city would extend his lease for one year, using a holdover provision in the existing lease. During the coming year, the city will put out a request for proposals.
With the long-term fate of Gibbs Flying Service in doubt, Buzz Gibbs recently reflected on his family's place in San Diego aviation history and offered his views on why, after nearly 70 years, the city might want his family to leave Montgomery Field.
Q. Does your father still own the business?
A. It's a family business. My kids own part of it; he owns part of it.
Q. How did your father get into the business?
A. He started flying in San Diego about 1930 -- he might have been 20 years old at the time. Charles Lindbergh was a big deal then. In those days it didn't take a lot of flying to get a license. My father worked odd jobs and different jobs and began teaching people and working on airplanes down at the old National City airport.
I think in the early '30s there was a very, very rainy year that flooded everything around here, and it flooded that airport down there. So he decided he wanted his own airport on dry land that wouldn't flood and went up to the Kearny Mesa area -- and that was way out of town in those days.
He started buying flat land up there, very inexpensively by today's standards -- it was a lot of money then. By '37, he actually had enough land to make a little airport. Airports in those days were nothing but a straight piece of ground 1200 feet long, and the brush would cut it off, so that's basically what he had.
Over the years he bought land from private parties. There was nothing up there. Daley owned a lot of the land, and he had cattle there at the time. That's kind of how it happened, and my father eventually acquired a couple hundred acres.
In World War II, just before World War II, Ryan, a civilian contractor, was teaching Army cadets how to fly. My father leased his airport to Ryan and went to work for them teaching Army Air Corps cadets. Then Ryan improved the airport somewhat for that. Then, when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, they shut down all civilian flying within, like, a hundred miles from the coast, and that even included the civilian training of Army cadets. The airport was closed up, and my father went with Ryan over to Tucson and spent World War II teaching Army cadets.
Then after World War II, there were lots of airplanes and lots of pilots. My father came back to the airport and started up his business again. In 1948 the city started making plans to relocate Lindbergh Field. Convair was making B-36 bombers, and they were exceptionally loud. Flying out over the Loma Portal area with those was really shaking people up. With the growth of aviation in World War II, all the airlines started taking off. All of a sudden Lindbergh Field became quite busy, so the city annexed Kearny Mesa -- at least the part of it that they didn't have -- and then they condemned 1800 acres up there, including my father's 200 acres. Took the land from different people, and they started making plans to move Lindbergh Field there.
I've heard a couple different stories. The way my father has told it, they started making plans to move Lindbergh Field up there, and the Navy said it would be too close to Miramar. In those days, they didn't have the precision of instrument flying and navigation -- the radar that we have today -- and the Navy just didn't want commercial aircraft flying that close to Miramar. There would be obvious traffic conflicts.
Whatever it was, the city didn't go through with the plans of moving Lindbergh Field, and they added a little bit of land to what had been my father's airport and renamed it Montgomery Field. The rest of the 1800 acres they sold off to industry to bring jobs to San Diego. The first sale was to General Dynamics for their Convair division.
Q. Who was Montgomery? Who was the airport named after?
A. He was a man in the late 1800s, flew a glider off of something in Otay Mesa. There's a DC-3 or B-25 wing right off 805 down there, a monument to him, supposedly where he flew this glider off the mesa down there.
Q. So the reason for condemning your father's land was the plan to move Lindbergh Field to Kearny Mesa?
A. Yes. I've been told that was the first of the Lindbergh Field-relocation studies, was when they actually went out and, under eminent domain, purchased the land.
Q. Do you know how much they paid for it?
A. I was three years old. [Laughs.] I've heard they could get $300 an acre.
Q. Do you know how many acres it was?
A. Two hundred and nine.
Q. And that was a pretty active field in those days?
A. No. I mean, they were basically oiled runways. It was just bare dirt, and they'd spray some sort of road oil on them. They weren't paved at all. The pictures I've seen, there were maybe 10, 15 airplanes out there.
I think in the Ryan days they had, like, 50 or 60, but there were airports all over San Diego then. There was an airport at Balboa and Genesee, and Peik's down by Mission Bay, and by State College, and Del Mar, San Marcos. They were just little bitty airports. They really weren't airports as we know them today.
They were just 2000 feet of straight little road and 50 acres or something and five or six airplanes. When people think of airports, that's not what these things were. They're more impressive not for the fact that they're airports but for the fact that there's nothing around them.
Q. What kind of traffic did they have? Who were your father's customers?
A. There were business people who used them for travel. There were flights into Mexico, since the roads were so poor down in Baja. Just pure recreation. I think there were a lot of military pilots who had that career orientation and then looked to this business to become commercial pilots.
Then right after World War II, the airlines really took off. The change in the aviation industry from the late '30s to 1945 was tremendous. They went from piston airplanes to jet engines. It's just phenomenal what happened.
Q. So your father was able to make a living?
A. Yeah. It was a lot of fun. Since 1948 we've been leasing property on the airport. There have been a lot of leases. The business has moved three times that I know of. In the '50s some other buildings were built, and one of our competitors still uses those today, and we have this facility that we built. In 1970, we had to physically pick up the business and get a new lease and build a whole new business again.
Q. Where did you go to high school and college?
A. La Jolla High School and San Diego State. I got an engineering degree, worked as an engineer for a couple years. I was working as an engineer for Solar, and I worked on weekends at the airport.
Q. And then in about 1970 you joined the business full-time?
A. It was always a small business, a family business. They physically needed help, so I went to work full-time there and never left.
The really peak years of the general aviation business were the '70s -- I think the late '60s to early '80s. I don't have the figures with me, but the production of airplanes kind of peaked around 1978 at somewhere around almost 18,000 airplanes.
There was a curve; it probably went up from 10,000 light aircraft built per year in the early '70s to almost 18,000 in 1978, and then about '83 it dropped down to 2700 airplanes. The cost of insurance -- and since the late '60s, '70s, the cost of airplanes -- has increased at more than double the rate of inflation.
The biggest manufacturer was Cessna. I was a Cessna dealer in 1978 for San Diego, and Cessna made, like, 10,000 airplanes. Of those there would have been 200 jets, something like that, and the rest were all piston airplanes. In 1985 they stopped making piston airplanes. Cessna didn't make a piston airplane between 1985 and 1999. That was because the insurance on airplanes just got so severe. It's sort of like if General Motors quit making cars and only made trucks! So there's been a very big change in business.
The piston airplanes slowly are getting older, and they're not really being replaced. The corporate airplanes -- the jets and the turboprops, which are the light jets -- are the dominant airplane moneywise in the business now, whereas in the '70s they were a very small portion of it.
Q. In 1970, was your average customer a private pilot?
A. Oh, yes. That's still the mainstay of our business, the recreational flyer. We also did charter flying for businesses. The major businesses in town have a need to take people out to different areas, so we had a charter business. The airlines didn't go everywhere you wanted to go.
Since deregulation, airlines are real cheap. I can't even fly my airplane for the same price as an airline ticket. It's lost some of its economic justification, but it's still a great way to go; it's still a lot of fun. If you don't want to go to the major hub cities, but, for example, if you have to go to Denver and then get on something else and go someplace else and then get in your car and drive somewhere, if you can instead fly directly there...it just depends on what your time is worth. If you have to spend all day on the airlines to get there, when you could fly there in three hours, you tell me how much your time's worth. There are still some very good economic uses of charters.
Q. In 1970 you also had a dealership where you sold planes?
A. We were the Cessna dealer. We were Beech dealers in the '60s and Cessna dealers in the '70s and early '80s. We weren't big dealers, but we might sell 15 or 20 per year. In those days Cessna made 10,000 airplanes a year for the whole country. The biggest dealers maybe'd sell 100 or so per year.
Planes aren't like consumer items where you have six of them out there in different colors. People would order their airplane. They would have them custom-made in whatever color or materials and different avionics and that kind of stuff. You had airplanes that you used as examples, and then you customized them.
Q. You had a shop at Montgomery Field that serviced planes?
A. Yeah, we still do. We have a maintenance-service shop. We did all the facets of the business.
Q. What is your mainstay today? Do you still have a dealership?
A. No. Because of the decline in the number of airplanes produced, there really are very few dealerships. Back in the '70s I was the dealer for San Diego for Cessna; there was a dealer out of Gillespie Field who did East County; there was one up in Carlsbad. Today they have one guy who covers Southern California. Many of the manufacturers have their own factory-direct sales force. They may have one or two people who do the West Coast, and somebody else does the Midwest and East Coast.
Q. Do you still have charters?
A. No. We dropped out of that. It was our airplane that PSA ran over 30 years ago, or whenever it was. After we found out that we were working for the insurance company for about three or four years after that, we decided that the higher-risk portion -- which was the fun portion, the flight training, we just ended up doing more of the ground portion. I still did some specialized charter work, but it wasn't the bigger, on-demand stuff. It was more governmental stuff, you know.
Q. So you were involved in the September 1978 crash of the PSA 727 over North Park?
A. It was one of our students in one of our airplanes and one of our instructors. In those days San Diego only had one airport that had an instrument approach, and that was Lindbergh Field. As part of a training program, student pilots had to do practice instrument approaches, and the only place you could do it was Lindbergh Field. And so they were doing a practice instrument approach, and PSA ran down from behind, and they just weren't seeing it.
It was just one of those circumstances where, I believe, the PSA pilots thought they saw the Cessna, but they saw somebody else, and they didn't see the plane they were supposed to see. It was hard to imagine how it happened, but it did.
Q. You had insurance, obviously.
A. We had insurance, and all the insurance companies basically got together and settled the cases. There was never really any court issue over who was liable. They just didn't want to get into that. I don't know what the outcome on that was. PSA's insurers handled all the wrongful-death claims and property claims. Everybody who was involved contributed.
I don't know how much everybody gave or what the outcome was; all I know is that our insurance rates doubled, and the next year doubled again. About the third year, we said, "We're paying more insurance than we make in this business." Everybody's insurance was going up at that time too. It wasn't just the accident. We had a very high loss ratio compared to the premium, and we decided that was a good time to sell that business.
Q. After the PSA crash they established a terminal control area [TCA] -- a controlled airspace. Has that changed aviation a lot here?
A. Oh, yeah. It's made it much safer. The small airplanes, the high-performance military, and the airlines are all segregated now. Before, they were all going any way they wanted to go. I mean, the PSA airplane used to make a close-in approach to Lindbergh Field. They actually cut right through the Montgomery Field traffic area.
That's not where the accident happened, but now when they cross Montgomery Field they cross at 7000 feet. Some airports did have TCAs before that, but I think only 10 or 12 of them. They were only at LAX and Kennedy and the really big airports. This accident kind of said, hey, we need to do it for all airports. So they really changed the standards for having them. They put one here, the next one was Phoenix; they started going in all around.
Q. How has that affected small aviation?
A. The complexity of flying has increased. Nobody has the freedom they had in the old days, when you could just hop in your airplane and go. I think 9/11 has changed it more than anything. It takes more training, and you have more restrictions on where you can go and what you can do. But it's a much safer environment around the terminal than it was prior to that accident. Because everybody is segregated, and the radar systems are much more sophisticated.
Q. You mentioned 9/11. Did any of those terrorists train at Montgomery Field?
A. Yeah. I had two of them actually in my office out there, the ones that were here in Clairemont [Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi], and I had al Mihdhar's signature on a credit card for stuff he bought. They took a couple lessons from one of my tenants. But they were only here for three or four days, and the people who were trying to train them said that they didn't speak English well enough and really were not suitable.
They went over to Arizona and got their training. The FBI came out and took all our records. I never saw the terrorists, but my employees and other people had direct contact with them.
Montgomery Field was shut down for three weeks after 9/11. They all needed to recover from this. They took all the terminal airports around the airline airports and shut everything down for a while and slowly brought it back as they discovered what was going on with the system.
Every time the president or vice president goes somewhere, they put an immediate 30-mile veil around him. They watch that with fighters and stuff. They intercept you if you make a mistake. It's kind of unusual because you can actually take off here and fly across the country, and something will come up after you've taken off and you don't know about it.
I guess you've lost some of the freedom of flight, which was the fun. You have to be a little more diligent; you can't go just anywhere you want to go anymore. You can't go around stadiums when there are football games, or the Rose Bowl, or anywhere there's a big concentration of people. They put up these temporary restricted areas, and so you have to not fly around Ohio State on Saturdays when there's a football game. You have to be more diligent, because there's a greater concern about smaller aircraft.
I think it's somewhat unwarranted. Right after 9/11, that small airplane flew into a building in Florida. All he did was break a window and get stuck there and kill himself. He's lucky he didn't fall down the building and hurt somebody on the sidewalk. We really don't have too much of an effect compared to an airliner that weighs hundreds of thousands of pounds. But there seems to be a real concern about that, so we just live with it.
Q. Do you still do repairs?
A. Oh, sure, yeah. We have about 20, 21 employees.
Q. Do you sublet the hangar space?
A. Oh, yeah. We have hangars. I have one tenant who does flight training. I have six or seven flying clubs, which are basically co-ops; people get together and share an airplane. I think there are 65 airplanes out there like that and six or seven different clubs, and they have, like, 1300 members. It's much more reasonable costwise than owning a plane. The club will own three or four airplanes, and they'll have 60 members.
Q. Have flying clubs become more popular as the cost of buying a plane has gone up?
A. A couple of the clubs have been around since the '30s. One of them's called Convair. It started out as the Consolidated Flying Club. Its members were Consolidated employees, before Consolidated bought Vultee and changed its name to Convair.
San Diego Flying Club's been around since the '30s also. There was a military flying club that was the Coast Guard Flying Club, which got kicked off Lindbergh in the mid-'60s, and the Miramar Flying Club, which was kicked off of Miramar about the same time, so they met at Montgomery Field and called themselves Armed Forces.
There's still a North Island flying club out there that has to exist for the North Island people, but the Coast Guard and Miramar clubs became this flying club for government employees and active and retired military.
Q. How many planes does the Armed Forces club own?
A. They have six.
Q. What kinds?
A. They're Cessnas.
Q. When did you learn that you were losing your lease?
A. First week or middle of February, somewhere in there. I was out of town. My wife was quite sick in the hospital back in Denver, and I was back there with her. I was calling up and having them open and read my mail to me. They opened one letter up, and it was from the city attorney; said, "We're taking over your lease as of the termination, and we'd like you to cooperate with a smooth transition."
Q. And you had no other communication with them?
A. I had spent the last couple years talking with the real estate department and making proposals to extend the lease. What has always happened is that you get a lease with a master plan. You build certain facilities, do improvements, pay the rent, and then at the end of the lease, the facilities revert to the city.
But they've never taken over before. You just pay them more rent, commensurate with the value. Then you build more. Usually these things are done on 30-year leases. Everybody else out there had theirs renewed.
Q. Did you ever think before you got to this that maybe you needed to hire a lobbyist or get involved in politics?
A. No. I mean, as a tenant, I think, like any tenant, I have built substantially more than I was required to do on a lease. They were business decisions, but you did it with the expectation that you would continue with the business.
Five or six years ago I stopped making real capital improvements, because you couldn't justify them, so you save them up so that when you get a new lease you start building again, meeting the needs.
I never expected this to happen, but you're somewhat cautious just for the outside chance that it does. You wouldn't want to build a brand-new building and have to turn around and give it to the city. You really do have to amortize over 25 or 30 years to get the financial investment out of them.
Q. You've also been active in the planning process in Kearny Mesa, right? You've served on various planning groups?
A. I'm the chair of the Kearny Mesa Planning Group.
Q. How did you get into that and about what time?
A. Oh, it's been quite a few years ago. The airport's a pretty sizable portion of Kearny Mesa. It's been my experience that if people have a face in front of them they don't complain quite as much, you know. We serve a small segment of the population. We bother a lot more people.
And so there's a responsibility to try to educate the general public, you know, to understand that sometimes the helicopters fly over in the middle of the night -- they happen to be Life Flight or police; they're not just people going around. So, I enjoy doing it, and I think it helps the airport overall. It gives it another voice.
Q. Have you been involved in any major controversies over -- not the airport per se, but the other part of Kearny Mesa?
A. No. I think the city's general plan that they're redoing right now is trying to increase the density. I think we're out of land in the city, basically, so they want to increase the density in the employment areas, and they also want to colocate housing in the employment areas.
Some of our large industrial users in Kearny Mesa don't want housing associated with them, and so there's a land-use issue going on, but there are certainly some areas where colocation is advisable, and I think that's being presented well.
Q. I guess what I was trying to get at, did you make any enemies when you chaired the planning committee? Did the city have any outside incentive to kick you out of there?
A. I don't think so. I never expected the city to get into this business. They told me that they wanted to manage the facility. As far as I know on these city airports, there has never been anybody's lease that came up that could leave the city so much in real improvements. I think it was just an economic thing. That's what they told me, that they want to manage it themselves, and the profit I make managing it would go to the city.
I think a good analogy would be like the Diane Powers Bazaar del Mundo. She took that area down there on a state lease and built a really successful business out of it. Her lease was up. Before her lease was up, the state put it out for public bid, and she bid on it and someone else bid on it and the other people had a superior bid.
In this particular case, I think they should have done this a couple years ago and just said, "Hi, you know what? We're not going to renew you. We're going to put it out for RFP [request for proposal]." I would be more than happy to compete on a fair basis with anybody else.
Q. Did you look at any other options in an attempt to convince them to change their mind?
A. I've gotten an absolutely wonderful response from my customers, who are concerned about their future, and I think they like the way we run our business. I think they were concerned that the services and amenities we provide would not be provided by the city.
So they've been writing to the city council. On April 13, at councilman Madaffer's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting, we told the committee that just ending my lease was leaving a big void, an unnecessarily stressful situation for the customers. The city has created this problem. They did it on purpose because they wanted to run the facility. We asked them, why don't you send this out for an RFP? We'll stay until you've put out the RFP.
My understanding is that the council committee recommended that the lease be extended for six months to a year. The city manager has authority to write up to a three-year lease without going to the council.
Q. The Union-Tribune reported that "the city stood to make $800,000 a year if it took over the hangars and other airplane spaces" that you've built. Do you make $800,000 a year?
A. I don't make $800,000 per year, or in four years. I have $800,000 gross rents, but there are taxes, water, services -- my office costs me $100,000 a year to keep open.
There is a fundamental disconnect that the city doesn't understand. They have a different philosophy of how to run a business. I've always been a free-enterprise guy. You know, I'm out there. I come by at least once on weekends. The city doesn't have any employees on the airport on weekends. They've cut back.
I have 255 airplane owners who base their airplanes there with me, and we provide a common-area office that has the little kitchenette, the Coke machines, the coffeepot, you know, the computers for people to come and do their flight planning and hang out, and places for the businesspeople, for their passengers before they load.
People always show up a little early, and so there's a little passenger lounge; there are bathrooms. There's a place for the pilots to go hang out away from the passengers. That's something that I include in the facility rent. There's no charge for these things, and I think that's why we've been successful. We offer our customers the amenities they want. We're sort of like a yacht club without a membership fee.
We don't have the restaurant that most of them do, but people come out there to have fun. They come out to jump in the airplanes and either go somewhere for business or fly somewhere for pleasure, and they like to come back and hang around and talk to people or whatever. That's really what makes the business is that the people enjoy being out there and they hang around.
It costs money to provide those amenities and let people hang around. We pull the airplanes out for people because you can't start your airplane in the hangar and drive it out. There's no reverse. They call us up, and we position the airplanes for them. We put the fuel in it for them, so they come in here and go. They park their car in their hangar and get in the airplane and take off. When they come back, they leave it wherever it is and say, "Put it away," and we do that, or "Fix this," or whatever. So there are people doing that all the time. We have the maintenance.
We have quite a few visitors that come on a regular basis. They fly in, they're mostly customers. Sometimes a lot of people fly in for weekends, especially in the summer. There's a lot of Imperial Valley, Phoenix people who have houses out here, and they bring their families over here -- the husband works, and he flies over here Friday night and spends weekends with his family and flies back Sunday morning or Monday morning. Monday through Friday, we have businesspeople that fly in to do business in Kearny Mesa or San Diego. The pilot hangs around all day, so he has a little pilot lounge with a TV set. He can snooze or hang around and be out of everybody's way. Usually that's just his job, to get the boss or other people here safely.
Q. You said that the city has renewed other leases at Montgomery in recent years. Does it seem unusual that the other folks' leases would be renewed and yours wasn't?
A. I was surprised. We cannot remember anybody whose business was actually kicked off. Most of the businesses that have been around this town have been around here for a long time. There have only been a very few people who have built absolutely brand-new facilities from scratch.
Q. The latest thing in private aviation for the wealthy is supposed to be small, personalized microjets. How does that affect the picture?
A. They're jets, yeah. They're very quiet, they're very small, they're meant to be owner-flown. They're going to have a cabin about the size of a station wagon. It's going to have two forward- and two back-facing seats in the back, with a door in the center, and a pilot and copilot seat. It's really meant for the guy who owns it to sit up front and fly it. They're 350-knot; they have a 1500-mile range. Very, very simplified systems.
They expect this to revolutionize the business; the microjet will be a wonderful status symbol. They're smaller than corporate jets, so they can fit in smaller hangars. One of my plans to the city was to start providing facilities for when these jets come out. You know, they only make a couple hundred of them a year, so you're not talking 50 airplanes coming to San Diego. But probably ten years from now there may be 50 of them here, so you have to start.
Q. Is it possible that the city wants to go for the corporate, business-jet market more, so once they get rid of you they can go after that?
A. You'd have to ask them. They haven't discussed with me what their plans are.
The last 25 years, the dominant revenue source has been the corporate jets. The money is spent by businesspeople who fly planes every couple of days for real transportation. If you have a nice hangar, fuel sales go up. The piston planes, the older they get, the less they're used. I have cheap old hangars for cheap old airplanes. But big airplanes make more noise. This airport has houses all around it. It will never be a big airport. It also has a weight limit of 20,000 pounds and a short runway-- 3400 feet for landing.
Q. Are you in a competitive relationship with the other tenants, like, say, Crownair, which has a facility down the runway from you? Would they be in a position to come in and negotiate with the city?
A. That's certainly possible. I think it'd be very bad planning if Crownair took over our facility, because they would have a monopoly situation at the airport. There are three of us that have FAA-certified repair stations: myself, Crownair, and a smaller business named Spider's, down the west end of the field.
Spider's is in one of my father's old 1945 hangars down there. A man named Spider actually ran my father's maintenance shop for him in the '40s and early '50s, and my father sold it to him.
For years and years he did our maintenance; then it got to be where my father wanted to do it again so he started up a new maintenance shop. So Spider's been a long-term friend. Actually, Spider's no longer there, but the people who bought his name are still there. They've been on a short-term lease for years. That business, that area of the airport, was put out for an RFP, and I don't believe Spider's is a part of any of the respondents to it, so if we're no longer there, there's just going to be one maintenance facility on the airport that's FAA-approved. I think it's not serving the needs very well. I don't think they could get one person to do all the work out there.
I think this is strictly a pure -- the city wants all the money. I think they're in such dire financial straits, and here's a one-time opportunity where they can acquire five or six million dollars' worth of buildings. We were certainly willing to pay them the commensurate rent.
I hired an appraiser, which is a thing that you do when you determine what rent you should pay. I made the city an offer. You don't make your highest and best offer right at the first, you know. But I never got a counteroffer.
Q. What about the newspaper report of a few years ago that Sol Price was interested in developing the area?
A. It was a chamber of commerce committee. I believe that Mr. Price was on there with Jack McGrory and some of the other developers.
I think they were really looking at solutions to San Diego's future in a way where they would say, you know, we're out of land, okay? Right here in Kearny Mesa there are 460 acres of essentially vacant land with this airport on it.
Kearny Mesa's ideally situated for employment. We have four freeways that cross it. When you drive in the morning up to Miramar and Mira Mesa, people are backed up on the freeway because there are only two entrances from the 5 or 15.
We have 13 freeway entrances in Kearny Mesa, so people get right in to the surface streets. We're centrally located. It's an ideal employment area. So I think they looked at those 460 acres that have this little airport on them and said, "Is that the highest and best use for the city of the future?"
I don't think a change of use is on the horizon, because every time the airport takes grant money from the FAA to do safety improvements, they sign a contract that says they'll keep the airport for 20 years. And the FAA has been pretty diligent in not asking for the money back but holding them to their contract.
Actually it's kind of interesting in that most of the people who are building the new aviation facilities in San Diego now are not in the airplane business. They're really real estate developers. They're making the facilities. I'm one of the dinosaurs, I guess. We've done some of our own development. We're actually in the business.
Q. So it's a hot market for developers coming in and building a facility and then leasing it out?
A. Yeah. There is kind of a pent-up demand. There's a real expansion of hangars for the corporate business planes in the last five years. The growth in the airplanes exceeded the facilities available. When people go out -- not so much on Montgomery Field but up in Palomar and Lindbergh -- when people go out and spend $30, $40, $50 million on an airplane, they want a nice home for it.
And the homes aren't available. There's a scarcity of the facilities in San Diego to house corporate aircraft. So a lot of people have been rebuilding hangars at Palomar airport. There are a couple developments on the line up there and one was built at Gillespie. I've heard there was a plan for a couple of hangars for Boeing Business Jets down at Lindbergh Field. It looks to me like the classic case of a little bit of demand and there's going to be a big oversupply. Everybody's jumping in to hit this market.
Q. So that could be another motive the city might have in kicking you off. They might figure they can at some point put out a request for proposals for development by one of these real estate developers?
A. It's cheaper for someone to redevelop my tie-down area, which is basically just asphalt, than to build on vacant land. It has an infrastructure -- taxiways, driveways, fire hydrants. Right next door, there's eight acres next to me that has been vacant for 50 years, you know, and it's actually the most prime piece of property on the airport. It was put out for an RFP six years ago.
I answered it, and one other person answered it. The city gave the exclusive rights to negotiate to this other person, but for some unknown reason they didn't get a lease, and it's been sitting vacant. I included those eight acres in my unsolicited proposal to the city.
Being already in the business and having an existing tenant base and existing operations, I could build on those eight acres -- build a few hangars one year, and build another few hangars the next, and be successful at it. Otherwise, someone who has to come in from scratch and start over again is going to have a lot more capital outlay.