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Supervisors Consider Plan for Private Firm to Run 5 Airports : Aviation: County employee unions and pilots are against the proposal, which includes Compton Airport, but majority of board supports it.

January 17, 1991|JAMES QUINN and MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The County Board of Supervisors is considering a plan to lease five county-owned general aviation fields, including Compton Airport, to a private firm that would operate the airports.

Although supervisors last week postponed action until next Tuesday on the proposed 20-year contract with Comarco Inc., a majority of the board expressed support for the leasing plan despite opposition from pilots and county employee unions.

Besides Compton, the fields are Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, Gen. William J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster, El Monte Airport, and Brackett Field in La Verne.

Under the plan, Comarco would operate the airports in return for the right to keep any profits of more than $2.8 million a year. The county Department of Public Works estimates that it has been earning about $2.2 million a year from the airports' operations.

Compton officials said they were concerned because they had not been told about the proposed leasing arrangement.

"I don't understand it," said Councilwoman Jane Robbins, head of the committee that organizes the city's annual summer air show at the airport. "We haven't heard one word. . . . I guess they don't think they have to notify us about anything."

Robbins said she plans to ask the council to have city staff look into the issue as soon as possible. City Manager Howard Caldwell expressed surprise that the county was moving on the lease without notifying the city. "I don't know what our rights are," Caldwell said, adding that he would contact county officials.

Assistant City Manager Paul Richards said that while the city may not quarrel with the concept of a lease arrangement, Compton does have concerns about safety at the airport, which is surrounded by neighborhoods and schools on the city's southwest side.

Compton Airport is a favorite of Sunday pilots and corporate plane owners who want to avoid the crowded air corridors at Los Angeles International Airport. There are about 90,000 takeoffs and landings at Compton annually, contrasted with 250,000 at LAX.

About two years ago, there were three incidents involving private-plane owners. One plane crashed and burned in an alley near a home, and another crashed and burned at the end of the runway, killing its occupants. In the third incident, a restored warplane landed in the center of a busy city street after experiencing engine trouble.

The city also would want to make sure that new airport operators continue to work with the city's high schools and the community college, which conduct aviation training classes at the airport.

City officials also said they would be concerned about any increase in rents at the airport. Caldwell said the city currently spends $8,613 a year to rent hangar space for three police helicopters at the airport.

Pilots have opposed the leasing plan, saying they fear that hangar and tie-down rates for their private planes and the costs of other services would skyrocket as Comarco seeks to make its lease payments and also make a profit. Nearly 700 pilots signed a petition urging that the contract be rejected.

"They'll have to get their profits out of the users," said Gus Whisnand, who runs a charter company at Fox Airfield in Lancaster, "and the users aren't that wealthy."

In response, county officials note that rental rates for planes must be approved by the supervisors, even if the airports are operated by Comarco. They also argue that Comarco would lose business to nearby airports if it raised rates too dramatically. Raising fuel prices would also drive pilots elsewhere, county officials said.

Public employee union representatives are also fighting the contract because 55 airport workers would lose their status as county employees under the plan.

County employees contend that the workers are not adequately protected by a provision in the proposed contract that requires Comarco to offer a position, at present salary, to anyone who has worked at one of the airports for at least three months.

A new job with a private firm is no substitute for a county post with seniority, regular raises and union representation, union leaders said.

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