Following an investment of close to $300,000, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority will reopen the Dr. Hermenegildo Ortiz-Quiñones general aviation regional airport in Humacao today, a facility reserved for individual pilots and ultralight aircraft operators.
In an exclusive interview with this media outlet, Ports Authority Executive Director Joel Pizá-Batiz confirmed that the reopening comes after the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the completion of a corrective action plan for a series of improvements to the property, which has been closed since March 22, 2019.
“The FAA ordered it shut for security reasons. There were problems with the security fencing that collapsed after Hurricane María. There was a problem with the runway’s draining system, which were all compliance issues,” he said.
In April 2019, the agency submitted the corrective action plan to the FAA for the remediation work on the 14-acre property that included repairing the fence, leveling the ground to prevent flooding, replacing runway lighting, installing a new windsock to keep birds off the property, preparing and resurfacing a portion of the runway, and painting new markings.
“This has been a small, modest airport, but with a lot of general aviation activity and ultralights. Flying schools could also practice there, so I think that’s where the interest comes from,” he said.
The Humacao airport has no air traffic control tower, as pilots use UNICOM frequency systems to use the facility, which has a single asphalt paved runway designated 10/28, measuring 2,450 feet long. The runway is rather short, in comparison to other regional airports: the Eugenio María de Hostos in Mayagüez airport’s is 5,000 feet long, while the Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla boasts an 11,000-foot runway.
“This will be part of the network of regional airports that Ports has under its wing. By having this airport, we hope to launch a marketing plan to have it generate revenue from commercial activities, related to aviation and others,” he said.
The agency seeks to lease the 20 hangar facilities available for private plane operators, plus commercial space inside the main building, Pizá-Batiz said.
“We want to develop it and ensure that what happened won’t happen again. But to be fair, after the hurricanes, Ports prioritized the use of its limited funding resources to larger airports,” Pizá-Batiz said.
Ports close to inking management contract for regional airports
In related news, Pizá-Batiz confirmed that the Puerto Rico Ports Authority board of directors has chosen a preferred proponent that won the contract to operate the agency’s nine regional airports for a term of between five and 10 years.
“This is an operations and maintenance contract for the nine airports, it’s not a public-private partnership,” he said. “The priority wasn’t so much generating revenue, although that’s important, but rather follow the FAA’s recommendations because the Ports Authority was one notch prior losing federal funding due to decades of incompliance with federal stipulations.”
So, the agency opted to bring in a private operation to turn things around in a period of five to 10 years. Pizá-Batiz refrained from revealing the name of the chosen operator, as the process requires that the contract get the approval by the agency’s board, as well as the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico.
“So, they will be our clients. It’s a contract through which they will operate the facilities, with a more experienced staff and technology. We would like for this process to be completed before year’s end,” he said.
The Ports Authority spends between $14 million and $19 million to operate its nine regional airports, but generates income of between $9 million and $10 million, Pizá-Batiz said.
The gap is covered with funds from maritime operations — cargo and cruise ship revenue. The rationale behind shifting the operation and maintenance agreement is so that the private company makes them into a “self-sustaining business.”
Meanwhile, the Fajardo airport — which was no longer a viable airport facility — was recently sold for $1.2 million through a public auction and will be converted into a racetrack. The change will have to also be approved by the FAA, he said.