There was a truly rare, freak-out weather event this past year at our airport. Strong gusty winds just blew the roof and doors off around 40 hangars built 30 years ago out of wood frames, wood truss roofs and metal siding. Oddly, aircraft tied outside on the flight line 100 yards from these hangars escaped unscathed – as were airplanes stored in newer, all-steel hangars nearby. The sudden loss of this group of hangars with winter fast-approaching made our already-chronic hangar shortage suddenly immediate.
But, this isn’t just a local problem. I regularly fly to different airports across the country, and at almost every one, local owners of general aviation aircraft say there is a long waiting list for aircraft hangars if there are any available at all. It appears to be a national phenomenon and something you would think a free market economy would have long ago fixed. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Our own hangar disaster made me start to wonder why this problem persists.
Ironically, part of the problem is caused by the presence and availability of the old hangars themselves. You can see these structures at different airports all over the country. They have long passed their design life, with some even left over from World War II. Others were built very cheaply by private sector investors who leased the land from the airport. With time, as the leases ran out, the ownership reverted to the airport itself, which then rented them to local aircraft owners. The rent in our area for this type of hangar has been about $250 per month (often less than a commercial self-storage facility of similar square footage). Local aircraft owners became accustomed to these relatively low rents and opposed any change that might make them higher. Hence, the old structures continued to exist long past their design life, and in the process made it difficult from an investment point of view for anyone to replace them.
Another reason for the hangar problem is the relative shortage of suitable airport land for new construction, and that is due to several reasons. One being this country long ago stopped building new airports. Luckily, we built a lot of them to start compared to other countries, but increasing demand for land use has placed the existence of those remaining under threat. In addition, most of the existing airports were laid out long before any wetland or other such environmental issues were of concern. But now they are, and the regulations applicable to them have real teeth. At our airport, this has made vast areas of otherwise suitable land not useable by law. Even when some of the land is not environmentally constrained, other rules regarding soil type and drainage can make building on those sites prohibitively expensive.
A third reason is the cost of construction itself. The time has long passed where cheap, farm-style pole buildings suitable for keeping a C182 out of the weather, were readily permitted by local government authorities. Now, most new construction must meet building and fire codes that simply did not exist 30 years ago – and that has greatly increased the cost. Also, there are prevailing wage rules as to what the construction workers are to be paid that did not exist in times past. This is particularly true if the construction is on publically owned land (as are most airports), or if the public entity has any business or ownership type involvement with the project. In our area, all these regulatory requirements are estimated to increase construction costs by at least 50 percent. Now, a case can be made that better-paid workers and buildings designed to a higher standard are all good things, and they are, but they also upsurge the cost.
Another interesting reason for the hangar shortage problem is called the “bump down phenomena” – something that has actually been caused by the success of business aviation. When I was a flight instructor based out of Boeing Field (KBFI) on the southern edge of urban Seattle (now more than four decades ago), there was ample tie-down space for general aviation. And if a given business bought say a Learjet, there was plenty of room for that airplane to be housed at a cost the company felt it could afford. But then a strange thing started to happen. Really large, multi-billion dollar businesses became established in the area and gradually moved up to the likes of Boeing 757s. In the process, through simple purchasing power, they acquired most of the available hangar space for their very large aircraft, displacing the smaller Learjet or Cessna Citation owners. Like falling dominoes, they in turn began to bump owners of smaller, less expensive aircraft. In the process, the shortage caused the cost of any space to go up dramatically. On KBFI today, monthly hangar rent for a modest-sized business jet can easily be in the area of $20,000, if you can find it. This has caused those owners to seek space at outlying airports, which in turn has further constrained the space available to smaller aircraft.
Another thing that has increased demand for local airport use (and aircraft storage) is that since 9/11, there has been a mass migration by aircraft operated under FAR Part 91 away from airports operated under FAR Part 121 for airlines. This has mostly been due to the extra cost and hassle required to comply with TSA rules. In our area, two airports previously considered primarily devoted to Part 91 or general aviation use (KPAE and KBLI) now have airline operations. Part 91 pilots now need to have ID cards, which require several time-consuming tests to obtain, to even access their aircraft. Passengers cannot access the aircraft at all unless accompanied by a crew member carrying an ID card. Drive-through gates are all locked and require all sorts of security codes in order to get through them. Land previously available for Part 91 aircraft storage is now devoted to airline passenger use. Local car parking suddenly has become expensive and hard to find. All of these factors have indirectly increased the demand for land on airports not so affected, and in a larger sense, this is probably a good thing, but it has its cost.
Yet another cause of the hangar problem is the tendency of some aircraft owners to assume (and even expect) the local government entity that owns the airport (and in the U.S., most airports are publically owned) to provide hangar storage at a price they feel they can afford. But that assumption is based upon a false reality. Most communities are already subsidizing their local airport with taxpayer money. Unless they can clearly see some larger public benefit, those local taxpaying voters are extremely reluctant to increase those costs. In our area of the country, given the cost of new hangar construction by a public entity, a new hangar rent for say a Cessna 182 would be on the order of $800 to $1,000 per month. And even that large number would likely not produce a defensible return to the taxpaying owners…that is it would represent some form of subsidy. And that sort of subsidization for most communities is simply not politically viable.
So, what is the solution for this hangar problem that exists all over the country to a certain extent?
First, owners of airplanes both big and small need to realize that for reasons mostly related to the success of aviation, keeping their aircraft in a hangar is going to cost more (a lot more in some situations) in the future than it does now. But this is America, a country with an economic system based upon capitalism – a system which tends to fix these kinds of problems on its own. So, the result is the negative of increased costs also has a positive side to it. That is when cheap, decrepit hangars gradually become non-useable and hangar rents increase (to extent land can be made available), the private sector will kick in and again start to build new hangars just as they did 30 or 40 years ago. Those hangars will be more expensive, but they will also be built to a much higher standard than those of the past, lasting longer. Ideally, they will provide a decent return on investment for those that built them, and that will encourage others to do so.
The hopeful result: we will pay more, but also our children will have a safe place to store their airplanes. Forty hangars suddenly getting blown down by a freak gust of wind just before winter will never happen again.