It is nearly mid-December 2020 as I compose this column, and I am sure by the time you read this, the legislative season will be in full swing for 2021. 2020 was a bust for nearly anything significant pertaining to aviation-related causes in the eight (8) states across the Great Lakes Region. Early in 2020, a few bills were positioned to become successful, but COVID-19 became the main concern of statehouses. In many instances, budgets were trimmed to make up for tax revenue losses.
In Ohio, the direct grant program administered by the Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT), Office of Aviation, was put on pause and many of the awarded projects were pushed into 2021. There are similar stories across other states, and I can attest that staff at DOT offices across the region were put in a position to make financially sound decisions, even looking for ways to trim an already thin budget. The new and untested waters of working from home, or a mixed schedule of office and home, became very normal in 2020 for most state offices.
This presented new challenges for state staff as they still had to carry out airport inspection programs, known as “5010 inspections.” Depending on the size of the airport, these inspections can take a few hours or even a few days. These inspections occur every three (3) years for a specific airport, and most states have staff on hand qualified to make the inspections. These inspections are very important, as they can shed light on issues to be dealt with like obstructions, lighting problems, pavement quality, operational stats, based aircraft, and services offered by the airport. The data is part of the airport master record that is used by the FAA for planning and funding purposes. If you get a chance to interact with your state DOT staff, they deserve a pat on the back for keeping up with the demanding inspection schedule, and literally being on the front lines of promoting aviation and keeping airports safe in your state.
Aside from the usual business of DOT functions, the CARES Act presented itself with financial relief to employers, small business, large business, and aviation was not left out. General Aviation and commercial service airports were apportioned an amount of relief dollars, based on FAA NPIAS (National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems) categories. Airports worked directly with state DOT offices and FAA District Offices to ensure that the flow of this emergency funding was put to good use. The money was used for payroll, utilities, bulk fuel purchases, debt services, small projects, and maintenance items.
The amount of CARES funding ranged from $1,000 to millions of dollars based on an airport’s NPIAS designation. The CARES Act monies are still being disbursed. It was a lightning round of communication from the FAA to airport sponsors and many questions were answered. AOPA was available to help answer questions and provide feedback to the FAA on how the funding process was being received.
In conversations with airport managers early in the pandemic, the crunch was felt as business aircraft operations slowed or stopped altogether. Obviously, commercial service airports have taken a big hit with airline service operations nearing all-time lows. On a brighter note, indications of light GA ops tapered at the onset of COVID-19, but as the year progressed, operations remained steady and increased in certain markets.
As an example, Flying Cloud Municipal Airport (KFCM) operations in the Twin Cities outpaced Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (KMSP) operations for several months in the early spring and summer!
Another group of individuals that deserves credit are AOPA’s Airport Support Network (ASN) volunteers. I have mentioned this program before in this column, but I want to take the opportunity to make sure you know what a positive influence these folks can have at the local level. When the COVID-19 restrictions began to roll out across the country, it was a concern that airport sponsors would try and restrict operations. The FAA felt it was necessary to remind airport sponsors (i.e. municipalities) that a federally obligated airport (an airport that has taken federal grant dollars) could not close or restrict operations based on specific aeronautical users. The FAA published a policy memo on March 16, 2020 reaffirming that any closure of a grant obligated public-use airport was not authorized unless approval was granted under Grant Assurance #19, which states that airport sponsors will not cause or permit any activity or action that would interfere with its use as an airport. The AOPA Airport Support Network was key in getting quick and accurate information as to the status of airports across the country. Thanks to our volunteers, AOPA was able to contact and educate the airport sponsors that attempted to close or restrict operations (yes, there were a few). In some cases, FAA offices investigated the restrictions being considered.
In 2020, AOPA was able to recruit well over 250 new volunteers into the ASN program. The Great Lakes Region welcomed 82 new volunteers in the last year. The ranks nationally are approaching 2,000 volunteers and we are still recruiting.
AOPA has enhanced the materials available for ASN volunteers online, rolled out a new training course for volunteers, and monthly webinars are planned for 2021 on a variety of airport advocacy topics. If you are interested in the program and are looking for a way to become involved at your local airport, visit aopa.org/asn for more information.
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