What You Can Do To Preserve Your Public-Use Airport

by Kyle Lewis
Regional Manager / Government Affairs & Airport Advocacy / Great Lakes Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2019/Januiary 2020

As 2020 begins anew, we celebrate the fact that general aviation (GA) is alive and well. Over the last few years, GA flight hours have been on the rise, the number of pilot certificates issued have been trending upward, and BasicMed has surpassed 50,000 issuances and Mexico now recognizes it, and it has a good safety record!

I have been lucky enough to attend several events across the region, including a stellar grand opening of the new Williston Basin International Airport (KXWA)! The airport is truly a gem for western North Dakota and will have facilities to serve the GA community for a very long time! Congratulations to the City of Williston, Mayor Howard Klug, Airport Manager Anthony Dudas and staff, North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Director Kyle Wanner and staff, and everyone else involved in this effort. It is truly a culmination of goal setting, planning, and dedicated people to get the job done!

One aviation issue that has become a red flag of sorts, is the number of public-use airports in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were over 7,000 public-use airports on record. Today, we are trending around 5,200. Not all 5,200 airports are eligible for federal dollars. To be eligible, an airport must have a NPIAS (National Plan for Integrated Airports Systems) designation. (See article elsewhere in this issue.) Here, are the numbers:

•5,236 public-use airports
•3,321 eligible for federal funding – NPIAS
•380 commercial service airports
•2,941 GA community airports

As another data point, for conversational purposes, there are over 19,000 landing facilities – private airstrips, heliports, seaplane bases, ag strips, etc. As part of AOPA’s advocacy agenda, a large portion of my time as a regional manager is focused on the preservation and promotion of airports. Our Airport Support Network (ASN) is vital to that mission, and I rely on over 400 volunteers in the Great Lakes Region for up-to-date information and advice when issues arise.

The work of educating local elected officials, neighbors, businesses, and even airport tenants is a constant drum beat for AOPA and ASN Volunteers.

There is a very important function that every pilot and/or airport tenant should take part in. Become involved in the local pilot group, EAA chapter, tenant association, Saturday morning coffee club, or whatever means your local airport may have. If your airport does not have one, start one! These groups provide a single voice to airport management – whether it be a city or county commission, airport authority, or township board. These local groups, or at least representatives from these groups, participate in technical advisory committees during master plan updates, sit on advisory boards, plan and carry out airport open houses, and in many examples, are the caretakers of the airport. Aside from funding, becoming active in the airport association is the best thing one can do to ensure the long-term sustainability of the airport.

Now that we have the foundation for airport protection covered, what are the top issues facing airports today?

You may be answering – “noise,” which is not always the case. Is it one person complaining 100 times a year or is it 100 different people complaining each year? There is a big difference. Noise complaints are just a symptom of perhaps a larger, more concerning problem – “incompatible land development” near an airport.

Are there good local zoning laws on the books? If so, how well educated are local government officials on them specific to airports? Is the community following proper state zoning code? In Ohio, each public jurisdiction owning an airport is directed to establish an airport zoning board, specifically for hazard and airspace protection (Ohio Revised Code 4563.03). Other states have similar statutes.

Another issue that airports face is “political pressure.” A developer makes promises of grandeur for a community – new housing, a new sports complex, a new park or school, industrial development, solar or wind energy, etc. The developer just needs land. “Hey, what is that airport doing? Nothing! Let’s close it and make good use of that acreage – tax revenue!” That is the song and dance of so many political influencers and developers that really have no understanding as to the value of an airport.

AOPA is very adamant that an airport should do everything it can to become self-sufficient and sustainable, the best medicine for a political squeeze. If the airport is dying on the vine, the pickings come so much easier, and the battle tougher. Make sure the value of the airport is known. If the municipality has taken some FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding, there are protections built in as part of the grant awarding process (i.e. grant assurances). There’s even more protection if land has been acquired with federal monies. This is not clear and simple and takes some educating for all to understand what is at play.

The moral of the story is to become involved, and stay involved. Airports are an integral part of the community for pilots and the non-flying public.

Thank you! It is a privilege to serve you! (kyle.lewis@aopa.org)

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