Midway Island Airport operation in jeopardy

 - March 26, 2008, 11:46 AM

Midway Phoenix of Cartersville, Ga., operates Midway Island Airport (MDY), some 1,200 mi northwest of Honolulu. Early last month Midway Phoenix informed its 150 employees that it would cease passenger operations to the island’s ecotourist resort and cancel its contract with Aloha Airlines, following a departing flight on March 2. Midway Phoenix has operated at the former World War II Naval Air Facility since July 1996 under a 20-year lease with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), but is blaming financial losses of more than $15 million on environmental costs imposed by the government, in concert with a poor economy.

The airport is variously known by its former Navy name of NAF Midway, as well as Henderson Field, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge or Sand Island Airport, after the largest in the three-island atoll on which it is located.

The potential loss of Midway Airport is of concern for its status as an emergency field within 1,000 mi of extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS) over the North Pacific. If MDY closes, the nearest alternates would be Lihue (LIH), Hana (HNM) and Honolulu (HNL) Airports in Hawaii; the Wake Island Atoll Airport (PWAK); and airfields in the Philippines.

At press time, Midway Phoenix had made only oral statements of any closure to USFWS’ parent, the Department of the Interior. Barbara Maxfield, external affairs chief for the USFWS in Honolulu, told AIN, “We have yet to receive anything in writing that formally terminates our cooperative agreement.” She said  Midway Phoenix made the statements in a telephone call to Ann Klee, counselor to the Secretary of the Interior.

Midway Phoenix executive v-p Bob Tracey confirmed that the company “demobilized its hotel operations.” However, he said, “Midway Airport is still fully operational.
“Our long-term goal is to receive not a full but a partial government subsidy to run the island. Even if the government said they would guarantee a five-year subsidy, that might be workable,” Tracey said. “We’re asking some of the people who have a vested interest, such as Boeing, to continue their option with us, and to practice their stewardship. The Coast Guard needs the island base for search-and-rescue, and that’s only increased since September 11. The INS uses Midway as an emergency divert for any unauthorized entry. We need to work with ATA and Congress now, to put a dollar amount on the annual financial role for the government to commit
at Midway.”

Regarding ETOPS issues, he noted, “It’s not only safety, it’s excess fuel issues; dealing with the pilot union as far as hours on duty; depressurization.” Tracey underscored the significance of ETOPS for Boeing and Airbus in a global perspective, because ETOPS matters are not unique to Midway. He also cited the Azores, New Territories and remote parts of Canada and Siberia.

The Other Side of the Coin
The USFWS speculated that the timing of the company’s remarks stemmed from the need for a new fuel delivery from the Defense Logistics Agency. Maxfield said Midway Phoenix abruptly withdrew from fuel negotiations in mid-January. On January 24, Midway Phoenix issued Notam A0003/02, warning that it would no longer sell fuel to transient aircraft. In December it bumped the price of JP5 grade fuel to $5 per gallon.
“The reason it’s five dollars,” said Tracey, “is to conserve fuel, so no one would come there for fuel unless they absolutely had to. We were getting critically low. But this was also our opportunity to make some money because we would lose volume. It takes a lot to resupply an island in the Pacific, and if you’re going to stop somewhere out here for fuel, there’s nothing but us. We won’t price gouge, but we still need to pay our tower people, resupply the island and pay our medic.”

Tracey claimed the company lost $2 million just in the last year. “Our position is that Midway Island is owned by the federal government, and it makes no sense for us to warehouse the government’s fuel for free. We’ll pump it for a small service charge, maybe 30 cents a gallon.”

Tracey supplied anecdotal numbers of operations. “We probably had in July alone, in excess of 20 corporate aircraft land. We have a lot of celebrities in business jets. We have Challengers, GVs and GIVs here all the time. We have privately owned 757s landing. They don’t want to route through Guam.”

Midway Phoenix’s losses stemmed from what Tracey called “extremism” in environmental requirements. “Restrictions on where visitors can go and what they are allowed to do have made it difficult to operate as advertised. It’s difficult to make a profit under that regime,” Tracey said. “We’re exhausted fighting the war.”
There are no customs facilities on Midway, and all flights must obtain prior permission for technical stops via Midway’s Georgia staff. The company promises corporate aircraft turns of 30 to 45 min.

Any aircraft, regardless of type or weight, must pay an $800 landing fee at MDY, but Midway Phoenix has been hard pressed to meet its monthly budget, reported at $399,420. Under its cooperative agreement, Midway Phoenix, a subsidiary of Phoenix Air Group, hoped to generate revenue by operating a tourist resort, harbor and sanitary and power systems on the 1,200-acre Sand Island. Guests stay in a renovated Navy officer’s quarters, and enjoy the former base bowling alley, general store and movie theater.

But USFWS policy to put wildlife first led to regulations, including a limit of 100 visitors at any given time, and blossoming restrictions on where ecotourists could explore. Tracey said visitors were more often told what they couldn’t do rather than what they could, calling USFWS “dictatorial.” He also alleged that the USFWS was killing the island’s ironwood trees because they were not indigenous, and this practice eliminated the only shade.

The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is the nesting ground for some two million seabirds spanning 15 species, including the Laysan albatrosses (better known as “gooney birds”). The bird traffic draws tourists but makes low-altitude operations hazardous.

From November through the end of May, pilots are required to request both current winds and reports of bird activity and are advised to schedule operations for nighttime when bird activity is lowest. The military field has NDB and GPS approaches. Runway 6/24 is 7,900 ft-long and routinely services a C-5 Galaxy. It can handle aircraft with double tandem gear weighing up to 390,000 lb. Runway 15/33 is 4,490 ft long.