Airport Authorities, Commissions, Advisory Councils & You!

by Kyle Lewis
Regional Manager
Government Affairs & Airport Advocacy / Great Lakes /
Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine August/September 2021 online issue

How well do you “know” your airport? How well do you know the recent airport decisions that may impact your home field? If the answer is “not very well,” then read on.

Airport governance is wide ranging. Pilots need to know who makes decisions for the airport and what direction the airport is headed. More importantly, airport stakeholders need to be involved in the decision-making process!

Most airports are owned by a “sponsor” (terminology used in accepting federal grants) that falls under the jurisdiction of the local elected government – perhaps a county, city, township, village, or even multiple owners, as in regional airports. Some sponsors are an airport authority or commission, which is created by local or state law and have the same duties and powers as any other government body. Advisory councils or advisory boards are another form of airport oversight, but with different rules. Let us take a closer look at these airport governing bodies, and how you, as an airport user, can have an impact.   

At most small general aviation (GA) airports, the airport sponsor is the local elected government. Day-to-day operations are the responsibility of an airport manager, who may report to the public works or transportation director or directly to the mayor, county executive, or city administrator. Sometimes the airport manager plays “double-duty” with another role in the local government. The airport manager may have been hired without the requirement for professional airport management training and he or she may be a staff of one!

Regardless of how small the local GA airport is, it will certainly face the same challenges as larger airports – like incompatible land use development, noise complaints, seeking and managing state or federal grant projects, and maintaining a positive community relations campaign.

Small GA airports provide essential services and are a vital transportation mode that connects the local community to the national transportation network. 

Small GA airports may also have their own airport authority, perhaps a multiple-member board comprised of local airport users, or individuals with a strong tie to local business that have an interest in the airport. While this model is not perfect, it does provide a diverse viewpoint for airport planning and development. In some cases, these individuals may not have the best intentions of the airport in mind, creating conflict among the local airport stakeholders. Usually, it takes some educating of these misaligned folks, and once the curtain is pulled back and the economic power of an airport is revealed, they understand the value of the airport and are airport proponents, or at least are open to promoting the airport.    

Airport authorities or commissions usually have the same authority as a local government body and can enter into contracts, have taxable authority, sue or be sued, hire employees, enter into leases, adopt and amend bylaws, acquire land, and create and maintain a police force. All the above-mentioned powers are all in effect to create, operate, and maintain an airport or airports within its jurisdiction. In metro areas, airport authorities are quite large and oversee the development of multiple airports – the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in Minneapolis oversees seven (7) airports, including KMSP and six (6) GA reliever airports. The MAC is one of the largest airport commissions in the country with over 600 employees, and over 1,500 GA tenants at the reliever airports, not to mention the ever-changing landscape of commercial operators, FBOs, flying clubs and flight schools based throughout the system. 

Airport advisory boards are different. They are “advisory” in nature, have no real authority or power, and usually report to a city or county council on the airport.

The make-up of these advisory boards is similar in description of an airport authority, with diverse opinions and backgrounds. Some airport advisory boards include citizens from neighboring townships or cities. Some advisory boards are only created to deal with specific issues, like noise or relaying community input to airport managers on airport development. Either way, airport advisory boards present an excellent opportunity for local pilots to interact with airport management.

What does this mean to you? I, along with other AOPA Regional Managers and associated staff, receive calls and emails with a panic tone of “the airport manager is doing this (insert seemingly diabolical act here)!” Truth be told, the conversation on any major change, project, renovation, closure, etc. is usually months or years in the making. Most airport tenants and local airport users may not be aware of what has been going on. Don’t be like them! Go to airport authority and advisory board meetings… they are all open to the public. The exception is closed (or executive) sessions, at which votes affecting the public cannot take place.

One silver lining of the COVID pandemic has been the wide adoption of teleconference technology, which allows any airport tenant to participate from anywhere. These public boards are the avenue for transparency and public process. Be a part of them!

Want to be more involved than just listening at an airport board meeting? Become an AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) Volunteer. AOPA oversees a network of more than 2,000 volunteers who are engaged at their local airport. These volunteers are members of advisory boards, airport authorities, and tenant associations. Is your airport lacking one of the above? AOPA can help institute one of these groups or expand on what is already there.

AOPA ASN Volunteers have access to an online resource library including topics on hosting an airport open house, airport development, community relations, land use and obstructions, economic impact factors, airport funding, compliance, and support groups. We have made it easy to volunteer. Visit www.aopa.org/asn to search for an airport in need of a volunteer and apply! kyle.lewis@aopa.org

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