When Palo Alto took over operations of its namesake airport from Santa Clara County nine years ago, the busy Baylands hub was in a sad state: losing money and wearing down from heavy use and insufficient upkeep.
The city's 2014 decision appears to have paid off. Palo Alto Airport today is home to 360 aircraft and five flight schools; its annual revenues exceed its operating expenses by about $600,000; and it has recently received a major facelift — a $36-million apron reconstruction project that was funded largely by the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the airplane parking and maintenance area. As the Palo Alto City Council and airplane administrators pondered on Monday the next phase of airplane improvements, the common sentiment was: sky's the limit.
No longer content to simply have an airport that serves a useful regional function and doesn't bleed money, the council and city staff are looking at making Palo Alto Airport a world leader when it comes to sustainability. This means making it one of the first airports in the nation capable of accommodating electric airplanes. It also means looking for ways to discourage — if not abolish — leaded fuel, and to construct solar arrays throughout the 102-acre facility so that it would actually generate more electricity than it expends.
That effort has already begun. Underground, beneath the airport's new apron, lie conduits that could accommodate installation of utilities, enabling charging stations for electric aircraft. Airport staff has also worked with the FAA to include infrastructure for future solar photovoltaic installations, according to a report from the Public Works Department.
"Staff are not aware of any other airport in the nation in a position to transition to electric aircraft as quickly as PAO," the report states.
According to Airport Manager Andrew Swanson, Palo Alto Airport is currently the fourth busiest in the Bay Area, averaging about 152,000 takeoffs and landings per year and trailing only San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports. Unlike those commercial airports, the general airport in Palo Alto is a "reliever airport" that spreads around air traffic to assist the larger airports and make the entire system work more efficiently. It is frequently used as a refueling stop for Life Flight helicopters bound for Stanford Hospital and it serves as a base for Silicon Valley DART, an organization that flies in supplies to communities where emergencies such as floods, fires and earthquakes have made roads impassable.
And with one taxiway and one runway, Palo Alto Airport is also a popular training ground for air traffic controllers, Swanson said.
"We're very lucky to have an FAA control tower and it's one of the busier, more sought out assignments to work at for the controllers, to come there and then progress to larger airports like Oakland, SFO and San Jose or throughout the nation," Swanson told the council.
Swanson highlighted some of the airport's recent sustainability initiatives, most notably its effort to switch from leaded to unleaded fuel. The project is requiring the refurbishment of an existing fuel tank at the airport to accommodate a new form of fuel known as Unleaded 94. While that project has seen some delays because of supply-chain issues, it is now expected to be completed by May. Airport staff have also been coordinating with fuel providers to make sure they can have the unleaded fuel immediately available when the tank is ready.
At the same time, the city is preparing to kick off a long-range plan for the airport. Funded by the FAA and known as the Long-Range Facilities and Sustainability Plan, the document will identify the improvements that the city will need to make to the airport and explore emerging technologies that are anticipated to reduce aircraft noise, according to the staff report. It will be the first planning document for the airport in nearly two decades.
Just about everyone on the council agreed that the airport should be as green and inclusive as possible. Council member Pat Burt suggested that because of the airport's size and configuration, it represents the "largest solar opportunity on any city-owned land that is practicable in the city." The airport can be equipped with a microgrid that would increase the reliability of the city's electrical system and, if needed, provide power to the water treatment plant and other vital services.
"We are overdue to proceed aggressively on a large-scale solar plan for the airport," Burt said.
Burt also suggested that finding ways to reduce airplane noise isn't a luxury so much as an imperative. He recalled his interactions with an East Palo Alto resident who lives close to the airport and who reported midnight flights that have been disturbing him and his neighbors at night.
"These are the sorts of things that if we don't address them to the extent that's appropriate, we're going to have real pushback for the closure of the airport," Burt said.
Mayor Lydia Kou agreed that the city should focus on reducing noise and suggested that the new long-term plan consider ways to measure and mitigate noise and other environmental impacts, including lead. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims proposed that the airport look for new ways to engage young people in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
"Many of our children feel like the only way out of Palo Alto is a degree in software engineering, maybe if more of them got turned on to flying, life would be better lived for kids here," Lythcott-Haims said.
Some of that is already happening. Palo Alto resident Tom Myers, member of the West Valley Flying Club, said his club is putting together a $30,000 scholarship program that would sponsor a youth in East Palo Alto. Myers, who began flying 35 years ago, said his club now has 60 airplanes, 40 instructors and 10 employees. He thanked the council for giving his club a home.
"Not only do you guys give us a home but you give us the confidence that we're going to have a home in the future," he said.
He also lauded the improvements that the airport had undergone since the city took it over from the county, including storm drain upgrades. In the old days, he said, when rain came down, the airplane would flood.
"Briefly, I did not own an airplane, I owned a submarine. I cannot begin to tell you how disheartening it is," Myers said. "Over the last few months, we had rain to beat all rainstorms and I'm proud to say … there hasn't been one drop of water in my hangar."