Ronson Aviation, which has operated at Trenton-Mercer Airport since 1975, has entered into an agreement to assign its lease to aviation real estate firm Hawthorne Corporation of South Carolina.

The announcement, made on Monday, May 18, by county executive Brian Hughes, ends speculation as to who would take over for the troubled aviation company that for 30 years has provided aircraft parking, fuel, repairs, sales, pilot and crew services, flight training facilities, aircraft catering services, executive passenger waiting areas, and pilot flight plan facilities at Trenton-Mercer. In April Wells Fargo, one of Ronson’s large creditors, denied the latter’s request to forgive certain debts. Somerset-based Ronson Corporation, most famous as a maker of cigarette lighters, began facing credit problems in connection with its expansion into other areas and has decided to draw back and concentrate on its consumer products business.

According to Hughes, Ronson’s existing lease was not due to expire until 2032, and its annual rent on 18. 4 acres and fees for fuel flowage and landing commissions is approximately $175,000. Ronson also paid approximately $111,000 in taxes. Hawthorne will be responsible for paying the county for land rental and fuel flowage fees, and for collecting landing fees on the county’s behalf.

Ronson Aviation has serviced aircraft at the Trenton Mercer Airport since 1961, originally as Trenton Helicopter. Business, however, has been down across the board in private aviation. In April Wolcott Blair, general manager of Ronson Aviation, said his company was down by 15 to 20 percent, though he has been able to hold onto nearly all of the company’s 37 employees. He did not replace two employees who left, and has had to lay off one mechanic and one maintenance worker.

Informed by the Ronson Corporation several months ago that it wanted to sell the aviation division, Blair lost no time in seeking a new buyer. When talks began with Hawthorne earlier this year Blair said the deal would bring only minor changes to the company.

Ronson Aviation’s history includes rebuilding hangar facilities at Trenton Mercer Airport after they burned down some 35 years ago. The project cost more than $1 million. “It was a big risk,” says Blair. “That was a lot of money back then.” The company further invested in the airport far more recently. It built a brand new facility late in 2007.

Commercial airlines have all but abandoned Trenton-Mercer Airport. Since Boston-Maine Airways left last spring no airlines have scheduled flights into or out of the airport, despite vigorous attempts to lure one or more to touch down here.

Ronson Aviation (RONC), Scotch Road, Trenton-Mercer Airport, West Trenton 08628; 609-771-9500; fax, 609-771-9512. Wolcott R. Blair, vice president general manager.

MCCC Aviation Program Saved

A little more than a year ago aviation in Mercer County seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Boston-Maine Airways had just pulled out of Trenton-Mercer Airport, taking the last commercial airline in the county with it; Hopewell’s Twin Pines Airport was sold by owners William and Jean Weasner to several townships to make room for athletic fields; and Mercer County College’s two-year aviation program — the oldest in the country and the only one of its kind in New Jersey — nearly buckled under the weight of its own budgetary troubles.

Last week, however, the Mercer County College board of trustees voted to keep the program, through a restructuring of the program and $500,000 grants from the state Department of Transportation and the Buehler Foundation of Paramus. The program also will benefit from a planned sale of some of the school’s airplanes. At its May 14 meeting the board announced plans to sell as many as six of its 11 planes in order to finance the purchase of three new planes by September 2010. At the same time the state DOT granted the program $450,000; the Buehler Foundation $50,000.

According to school officials, much of the problem with Mercer’s aviation program has been an aging fleet. The nearly 40-year-old program still operates planes well into their 30s, which leads to higher maintenance costs and has created a safety and insurance issue. But another problem is the way the program was administered. Many people taking aviation courses, according to Mercer, were not taking the general education courses the aviation degree path requires. MCCC president Patricia Donahue has said that general education courses will now become prerequisite to beginning actual aviation courses.

The school did not say how long a reprieve the course will have. With mounting costs to both pilots and students the trustees wrestled most of the past year with the decision to close the program as early as this coming August. In an effort to save the program, the school’s aviation department mounted a publicity campaign and offered several flight fairs that served as fundraisers.

But the efforts of the department alone fell short. In February a group of pilots, teachers, and students appealed to the school to save the program, though the financial realities were sobering. According to school officials, the department’s annual budget is a little more than $850,000, and it had been operating on a deficit of nearly $400,000 a year. Though it was a relatively inexpensive way to earn an associates degree and a pilot’s license compared to many commercial schools, it still became an obvious problem to the school’s bottom line.

According to Mercer’s student newspaper, the Viking, last April, Mercer’s program was beset by a failing aviation industry all around. Then-recent budget cuts for higher education, rising fuel costs, and the spiraling commercial airline industry weighed in with the rise of tuition and fees costs at the school itself.

Mercer usually positioned its aviation program as a practical endeavor. Commercial airlines require a four-year degree for pilots, and according to the school most people who earned an associates in the MCCC program went on to collect their bachelors’.

The program also offers programs in aviation management and aviation customer relations. It has graduated more than 400 since its inception. — Scott Morgan

Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, Box B, Trenton 08690; 609-586-4800; fax, 609-570-3845. Patricia Donohue, president.

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