Airport Licensing vs Owner’s Liability

by Rick Braunig
Aviation Representative
MnDOT Office of Aeronautics

This year there was a change to the Minnesota State Statutes concerning owner’s liability for the use of land for recreational purposes. The statute was changed to add noncommercial aviation activities to the definition of recreational purpose. If you want to read the statute, you can search for Minnesota Statute 604A.21. You should also read 604A.22 and 604A.23. The way I read this, a landowner can give you permission to land on their property and as long as they don’t charge you anything, they cannot be held liable if you have an accident, even if they do not warn you “of any dangerous condition on the land.” If you are considering taking advantage of this provision, you may want to get a legal interpretation before you do.

Some people would have you believe that this change opens private airports for the use by any pilot as long as they aren’t performing an activity that requires a commercial license. They lose sight of the title of this statute, which is “Owner’s Liability.”

Minnesota has statutes and rules pertaining to private airports that have been in place for a long time. These rules serve to provide a level of safety for operations at all Minnesota airports. The rules define three types of airports: Public Use, Private Use and Personal Use.

Most of us are familiar with public airports. These are open to all pilots without requiring prior notice or permission. Public airports have the highest safety standards and they are inspected on a regular basis to ensure compliance with those standards.

Private-use airports require the permission of the airport owner before using the airport. This allows the owner to talk with the pilot and advise them of any peculiarities of using the airport. This also gives the landowner a chance to identify the type of aircraft the pilot intends to use and decide if that aircraft seems appropriate for their runway. Private-use airports are inspected before being licensed, and follow-up inspections occur when state aviation officials become aware of a change in conditions. The rules for private-use airports are less restrictive than public airports, but have restrictions on length, width and clear areas surrounding the runway.

The Minnesota rules also restrict the types of operations that can occur at private-use airports. Any commercial operation that involves carrying passengers is only permitted if the airport meets the minimum safety standards for a public-use airport. This rule is to protect passengers who cannot be expected to understand the risks involved in operating from a private-use airport.

Finally, the personal-use airport is by definition for the personal use of the owner of the airport. The rules say: “A personal-use airport shall not be held out as available for public use, nor shall the public use of a personal-use airport be invited, permitted, or tolerated.” (MN Rule 8800.2200 Subp. 6A)

Also: “A personal-use airport shall not be displayed on any chart for public distribution.” (MN Rule 8800.2200 Subp. 6C)

The rules for personal-use airports only require that they are long enough, wide enough and safe enough for the use of the owner. We visit these airports prior to licensing and while we offer advice, our main purpose at the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics is to ensure that the airport doesn’t create a hazard to persons or property on adjacent lands.

A few years back, the legislature added a special condition to the statutes that allows a person to operate a personal-use airport without a license as long as that airport is more than five (5) miles from the nearest public airport. These airports are still personal-use airports and must meet the criteria for a personal-use airport. In other words, they cannot endanger people or property on adjacent lands. The only time this comes up is when a non-licensed personal-use airport comes to our attention because of complaints.

In addition to state statutes and rules, local communities also have jurisdiction. Some communities require a special-use permit and others ban airports within their boundaries. I am sure there are differences in the requirements from state to state, so if you are not in Minnesota, check with your local and state officials before establishing your own airport.

Airport Licensing In Minnesota

So you want to establish your own airport. The first place to start is with a plan. I recommend “Google Earth” as a great place to get a bird’s-eye view of the property. This website also has tools that allow you to make some rough measurements to ensure you have enough length for your aircraft.

The next part of the plan involves a little research. A great place to start is on our website: www.dot.state.mn.us/aero. On the right side of the page, click on the link: Forms/Licenses/Registration. This will take you to the page with the licensing information on it.

The Federal Aviation Regulations require you to complete an FAA Form 7480 and send it to the FAA. This initiates an airspace study that will identify any conflicts such as your neighbor who has a runway that runs perpendicular to yours that you didn’t know about. I recommend waiting to move any dirt until you have the response from the FAA.

In the meantime, you should contact the agency having zoning powers over your property to see if there are any restrictions on using your property as an airport. You may need to get a conditional-use permit and that can take a couple of months. There is also a statute that requires prior approval from the state before building an airport. This can be turned around quickly if you can show that the federal and local requirements have been addressed.

This should give you adequate time to plan the construction of the runway. You should be considering climb rates and looking for obstacles off the ends of the runway that may need to be removed. You should be planning runway drainage and if you intend year-round use, consider where you will move the snow in the winter.

Once the response to the FAA Form 7480 has been received, construction can begin. When the airport has been constructed, give us a call at the MNDOT Office of Aeronautics and we will do a licensing inspection. If your airport is more than 5 miles from the nearest public airport and it is only for your personal use, a license from the state is not required. In either case, be sure to return the FAA Form 5010 that comes on the back of the FAA’s response. This gets your airport in the federal database of airports.

While registering your airport with the FAA won’t make your airport appear in most GPS databases, it does appear when people who know how to search are looking for it. These are people like the FAA when your other neighbor applies to likewise establish an airport. People who build power lines and wind turbines also know how to search this database, and while they are not required to protect your approaches, most companies will do what they can to keep from affecting your airport. Returning the 5010 also results in the FAA issuing an identifier for your airport, and while you can legally file a flight plan using your new identifier, don’t count on the controllers knowing where it is.

Landing On A Private-Use Airport

There are some really nice private-use airports in Minnesota. Still, before choosing to land at one of them, you are required to have the permission of the owner. I know a gentleman that didn’t bother to check with the owner one time and came back to find that his airplane was missing. After some negotiation, the aircraft was returned and the lesson learned.

I would be very cautious about operating at a private airport. If at all possible, I would want to walk the runway and take some measurements before my first landing at a private airport. I would check with my insurance agent to make sure I was covered if there was damage, and I would check the aircraft flight manual for landing and takeoff performance. Is it really worth the risk?

If I was the airport owner, I would be very cautious about who I let use my airport. You not only have to worry about the pilot suing you, but the passengers and sometimes their spouse(s) or children. I know noncommercial aviation is included in the Liability Limitations Statute, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lawyer out there who will challenge this law in court and even if you win, you can still end up with legal debts from defending yourself.

Not every pilot is a “Bob Hoover.” Even if you don’t get sued, an accident on your property can be a pretty bad day. You are probably going to be visited by those heavy fire trucks and an ambulance. They can tear up a runway pretty good. Then there is the removal of the wreck and the investigation by the FAA. And that doesn’t even consider the emotional toll of an accident on your property. Again, is it really worth the risk?

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This entry was posted in Columns, Columns, Dec 2012/Jan 2013, MN Aeronautics Bulletin and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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