by Kyle Lewis
Government Affairs & Airport Advocacy /
Great Lakes Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2020 issue
2020 changed almost overnight. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on industries and economies throughout the world. As we all know, aviation was no different with some aspects of commercial aviation hit the hardest. From the onset of the stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and other business shutdowns, AOPA was still advocating on behalf of its members.
It was a quick realization that even general aviation was being restricted on some levels, mostly on flight training operations.
Myself, and the other regional managers, became involved in tracking the rapidly changing landscape of executive orders passed down by governors and health directors in nearly every state. (North and South Dakota were the most relaxed in my region with no direct travel restrictions or stay-at-home orders). These orders changed on a regular basis, and the intent of each order affected general aviation differently in each state.
While recreational flying was never outright restricted, perhaps leaving your home to drive to the airport was not considered essential and made recreational flying off limits. Overall, the work is still ongoing even into these summer months, and we are constantly monitoring the crisis. The concern now is to determine what will be the impact to state budgets and the funding of aviation programs from sales tax revenues and general fund dollars. Many states have begun cutting budgets and the outlook is bleak over the next couple years.
The airport in Isle, Minnesota – a small town that sits on the southern edge of Mille Lacs Lake (approximate population 750) – was struggling before the pandemic and the pandemic didn’t help. The c is owned by the city, but operated by the Isle Airport Association (IAA). The airport features a 2,460 ft. turf runway. Essentially, the airport is “private use” and pilots must be a member of IAA or have permission to fly in. I found out “from various sources” that the airport was going to be closed due to an unsafe condition – trees growing in the approach path. The closure was slated to be sooner, rather than later, as the Minnesota Office of Aeronautics was on the verge of pulling the operating certificate for the airport, unless the city enforced its easement to clear the trees from private property adjacent to the airport. This was in early 2020 when I began working with the airport association, Minnesota Pilots Association (MNPA), and the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) on a strategy to keep the airport open.
IAA had been involved with the issue for several years, and there were tensions between property owners, the city, and IAA. It was decided that the best strategy, given the short timeframe before a city council vote on the easement, was to hold a town hall meeting. Obviously, we wanted pilots and users of the airport on hand, but more importantly, we wanted members of the community to be involved.
Dave Retka, IAA President, started the legwork of inviting residents, business owners, city council members, and airport users to the meeting. I made plans to be there in person to speak on behalf of AOPA members, and to give a short presentation on the value of small community airports and how they are funded. IAA also completed a survey of how much and where its members were spending money in Isle when they would fly in and visit the community. Those results were very helpful to the argument that the airport DOES contribute to the community financially. Over $50,000 was spent in 2019 on goods and services by pilots flying into Isle. It was hard to argue with real data!
I made the trip to Isle in early March 2020, just before the coronavirus shut down the world! I spent a couple days in town and was impressed by the hospitality and beauty of Mille Lacs Lake. It helps when you can see the community from the air!
The town hall meeting garnered attendance from nearly 75 people, some coming as far away as Rochester, Minnesota! MNPA, RAF, IAA and local citizens all spoke on behalf of the airport. I made it a point to say that AOPA, or any other aviation organization, cannot tell the city council what to do – that is the job of the residents.
Remember, this airport has taken no federal or state grant dollars over the years, so there are no obligations for the airport to remain open. That is why this decision was purely what is best for the community. The town hall meeting was mostly positive. Some folks did ask if there were more valuable uses for the land, such as an RV park. In truth, if the land were used for any other useful purpose, there would be a much higher cost associated to the city, more so than the operating cost of the airport in its current form.
Fast forward to June 2020, the vote had been delayed by the city council from April to June due to coronavirus restrictions. IAA was given time on the agenda to speak in favor of the airport and enforcing the easement. MNDOT was also on hand to answer questions on zoning and grant dollars.
Given some difficulties with zoning requirements that would have created an eminent domain situation to remove residences near the airport, it was not likely that the city would pursue public-use status for the airport. The city council did vote to enforce the easement, with the understanding that IAA will cover the cost of removing the trees.
This is a big win for the airport and its supporters. The airport will remain private-use and IAA will still lease the airport for the remainder of the current terms. IAA does have the funds to cover the tree removal, which is slated to occur in fall or winter of 2020. The airport is to remain open, and this is a reminder that it does take a community to keep an airport alive. Thanks to Isle, Minnesota for a good news story, and thanks to all of those who made it happen!
I hope everyone is staying healthy and finding ways to enjoy aviation in these challenging times.
It is a privilege to serve you!