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Area’s small airports give lift to local economy, employment

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 12, 2012
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General aviation airports in the region support 807 jobs and generate more than $117 million for the local economy, according to a recent government study.

The study, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, looked at 39 airports across the state and examined how they contribute to the economy. It said all the state’s airports, including Boston Logan International Airport, support 124,000 jobs statewide and generate almost $11.9 billion in annual economic activity.

The ripple effect of a regional airport can be substantial. Airports are home to flight training schools, aircraft maintenance companies, and other aviation businesses. After landing at an airport, planes fuel up. Visitors often need to rent cars, book hotel rooms, and eat at local establishments. The study used FAA-approved methodology to measure the economic impact of each airport and calculate the number of area jobs that each supports.

There are five general aviation airports in the suburbs south of Boston, in Marshfield, Plymouth, Hanson, Mansfield, and Norwood. Of all the general aviation airports in Southeastern Massachusetts, Norwood Memorial Airport had the greatest economic impact ($51.4 million) and largest total employment (386 jobs). It was followed closely by Plymouth Municipal Airport, which supports 301 jobs and contributes $48.5 million to the region’s economy.

“We certainly play a part in the economy,’’ said Tom Maher, manager of Plymouth Municipal Airport, which is home to two flight schools, four aircraft maintenance companies, two charter flight businesses, several corporate flight operations, a commuter airline to Nantucket, and a cafe called Plane Jane’s. The Massachusetts State Police Air Wing flies out of Plymouth, as does Boston MedFlight.

Maher said that the Plymouth airport serves as a “gateway to the community,’’ and that its presence can be felt far beyond the town’s borders.

“There’s that old aviation saying,’’ said Maher, “Build a mile of roadway, and you can go a mile. Build a mile of runway, and you can go anywhere in the world.’’

Access to air transportation makes a region more attractive to employers, said Thomas J. O’Rourke, president and chief executive of the Neponset Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a spillover effect, too, from all of the people coming in and out of the airport,’’ he said. “They’re staying in the area, and going to restaurants.’’

O’Rourke said an airport is not only an asset to the community, it can also be an attraction: He has brought his son to watch planes take off and land at the Norwood airport.

Norwood Memorial Airport is used by, among others, congressmen and New England Patriots players, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, and former quarterback Doug Flutie. News helicopters for channels 5 and 25 also fly out of there. The airport has a rich military heritage: Originally built in 1942 to train pilots during World War II, it became a municipal airport in 1946, and the town later dedicated it to all Norwood veterans who served in combat.

Today the 700-acre airport has two runways and an air traffic control tower, and is home base for approximately 195 planes. There were 5,700 takeoffs and landings during December, and in a good month that figure can go as high as 8,000, according to airport manager Russ Maguire.

Farther south, Mansfield Municipal Airport contributed 59 jobs and $9.1 million to the economy. Located on land that was once a fruit grove - that’s why it’s called Fruit Street - and later a racetrack, it’s been a municipal airport since the 1950s, according to airport manager Bob Welch. Mansfield’s airport sees approximately 60,000 takeoffs and landings each year - an average of 5,000 per month, he said. It has two runways, a flight school, an aircraft maintenance shop, an avionics shop, and 116 planes based there.

“It’s a small airport nestled in a small community,’’ said Welch. “People come in to go to Patriots games and the Comcast Center.’’

The economic impact study found that Marshfield Airport-George D. Harlow Field supports 58 jobs and generates $8.1 million in the economy. Marshfield’s airport opened in the 1930s and is named after a longtime airport commissioner. It covers about 230 acres, and has 47 planes based there. It has one paved runway, and is home to Shoreline Aviation Inc., which offers flight lessons, charter flights, and aircraft maintenance services. Eighteen people work at the Marshfield airport, which serves a range of small-business owners, large corporations, and tourists.

“It’s a busy little airport in its own right,’’ said airport manager David Dinneen. “We have a lot of visitors, especially in the summer, who fly in and visit the beaches.’’ Marshfield’s airport also sees its share of famous faces: Gisele Bundchen took helicopter flying lessons there in 2009.

The study also found that Cranland Airport - a small privately owned airport in Hanson - contributed three jobs and $183,000 to the economy.

The airport economic impact study began in November 2010 and took 12 months to complete. The Patrick administration highlighted the contributions of general aviation airports in Southeastern Massachusetts late last month.

In a press release, Richard A. Davey, the secretary and chief executive of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said: “These South Shore airports are critical to the regional economy, creating jobs directly while making many more jobs possible in the private sector.’’

The last airport study of this kind was done in 1998-1999, according to Christopher J. Willenborg, Aeronautics Division administrator for the state Department of Transportation.

An executive summary of the study can be downloaded at www.massdot.state.ma.us/portals/7/downloads/aero_economicStudy_111021.pdf.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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