By Chris Sasser
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
In the far reaches of West Texas just north of Odessa and nearly on the New Mexico border is a sprawling airport located on the edge of town: Andrews County Airport (E11). Though one has to travel a long way to reach this airport, its importance in the community and surrounding area cannot be understated.
Over the last five years, through the leadership of the airport manager and key local government officials, the airport has made significant and meaningful changes to both the airside and landside environments in response to the changing role of the airport and the needs of its users.
Robert Vargas has been the airport manager since 2010. His background includes serving in the military, working for the county as a jailer and a 911 operator. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008, and when he returned to civilian life he found that a desk job no longer suited him.
“I just realized that I could no longer sit in an office all day anymore,” said Vargas. “I saw an ad in our paper for airport manager and decided to dive in even though I didn’t know where it would go. It was a quality of life issue. I really felt like this was a challenge I wanted to take on. Having my military background gave me a lot of confidence, which you need when facing a commissioner’s court. I’m grateful they gave me the job, and I’m very content and happy with where I am.”
No doubt the local government officials and pilot community are pleased as well with his leadership. When the airport development plan called for the closing of the third runway (11-29) to make room for the changes, Vargas solicited input from local pilots who used the runway on particularly challenging windy days. The county elected to maintain its third runway using 100 percent local funding.
When Vargas initially took over as airport manager, he immediately began work on landside improvements that had been neglected.
“The infrastructure was out of code and compliance,” said Vargas. “The electrical system in the hangars was one of the biggest issues. People were running their own electrical and nothing was to code. So my first project, through a TxDOT RAMP grant, was to make sure our electrical systems were in compliance. Also, my assistant, Corbin Stewart did a lot of the leg work during the 2012 CIP project. On a day-to-day basis he helps keep me organized and does a fine job maintaining the airfield through mowing operations and self-inspections. I know I couldn’t have made things work without him.”
This initial project sparked a renewed interest from local officials in the airport activities.
Oil Boom Sparked Growth
During the oil boom, the airport’s region saw tremendous business growth in the oil and gas industry, which translated directly into increased activity airport. Fortunately, the airport through the guidance of Andrews County Judge Richard Dolenger, the Commissioner’s Court, local business leaders, the economic development corporation, and Chamber of Commerce prepared itself for the growth by taking proactive measures to ensure the viability of the airport well into the future.
Three of the most important projects were:
- The construction of a 120 x 130 corporate hangar;
- A new airport development plan and airport layout drawing; and
- Acquisition of three key parcels of land to facilitate public partnership and private hangar development.
Additional projects included pavement rehabilitation to the runways, installation of a PAPI 4 on RW 16-34 and RW 02-20, MIRL replacement for RW 16-34, parallel taxiway reconstruction, drainage improvements and construction of a concrete fueling apron. These investments in the airport total more than $3 million.
“The projects speak to the efforts that the community continues to make to ensure viability of the airport and illustrate the importance placed on the airport with respect to current and future business development within the county,” said TxDOT Airport Planner Daniel Benson.
The centerpiece of the projects is the new corporate hangar, which has office space with restrooms and shower facilities. From the highway, the brick façade resembles an office building rather than a hangar. The hangar and office space were recently completed and ready for move-in.
Though the energy sector market has slowed, the airport is still busy and planning for the future. Vargas is working to find the right client for the new hangar and even hopes to have an airplane viewing area for local families to visit and see what’s going on at the airport.
“Robert has really done a great job,” said Andrews County Commissioner and local pilot Jeneane Anderegg. “He is responsive and listens to the needs of the pilot community and has the vision to see projects completed.”