ZEPHYRHILLS — Deuel Christian is worried about the state of general aviation. The high cost of flying is grounding pilots. Personal aircraft manufacturers have all but stopped building new planes. And the number of licensed pilots has plummeted, he said.
First Sept. 11 gave the industry a jolt. Then, like with so many things these days, came the squeeze from the economy, said Christian, who for more than 12 years has parked three different Piper aircraft at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport in Hangar 3.
"You have much less discretionary income," the Lutz resident told City Council members during Monday night's regular council meeting.
He was one of about a dozen pilots, all but two from outside the city, who showed up at the meeting concerned about a proposed rent increase for hangar units.
The council, however, voted unanimously to increase hangar unit rents to $255 monthly. The exception is Hangar 3, an older hangar with fewer amenities, which will see a $25 decrease to $225 a month. As a concession, the council agreed to give a 10 percent discount for paying a year's rent up front. The change takes effect April 1.
The increase allows the city to save funds to match grants for improvements and airport projects that are otherwise unfunded.
The move was designed to make all 143 hangar rents equitable. Since 2006, new renters have been paying $250 monthly, while 44 existing customers, including Christian, kept a lower rent of $200 per month. That created a "privileged class of renters," according to City Manager Jim Drumm. Pilots have complained about the different rates for essentially the same space, staff said.
Interim airport manager Nathan Coleman said he thinks it's important to provide the same service and rates to all renters and stressed that the Federal Aviation Administration requires that rents be competitive in order for the airport to qualify for FAA funding for projects.
The city conducted a rate study in November of the 15 general aviation airports within 50 miles of Zephyrhills and the city's rates were among the lowest. The highest was at Tampa North Aero Park in Wesley Chapel at $450 for single-engine planes.
Christian, an 81-year-old retired dentist who has flown for more than 50 years, said though his rent in the older hangar will go up to $225 he plans to stay put for as long as he's flying. But he can't say the same for others.
"Increasing the cost couldn't have come at a worse time because general aviation is really on the rocks right now," he said Tuesday. "But I understand where the city is coming from."