by Dan McDowell
When aviation is discussed in many communities and even on social media, it is the airlines that become the greater part of the conversations. General aviation (GA), if mentioned at all, is too often spoken about in a negative voice. Yet, GA makes up 75% of all aviation activity in the U.S., while airlines make up 20% and the military makes up only 5%, each day, across this nation. In fact, three of every four takeoffs is a GA flight.
A community that owns the airport, benefits directly, as well as indirectly because of that airport. Unfortunately, the value of a GA airport to that community, along with the value and benefits GA brings to the community and surrounding area, is too often misunderstood, ignored, or overlooked. In fact it may be almost completely unknown to many in the local community.
An airport is a valuable asset for the local community, as well as the state and nation. It opens a door to the community and surrounding area and brings in tourists who spend money at local hotels, restaurants, gift shops and tourist attractions. Besides enhancing local tourism, an airport is a business attractor. Businesses that want to grow and expand frequently choose locations that are on or near an airport. They do this so they can easily and efficiently move goods, parts, and personnel to their customers.
GA airports provide facilities for their communities (as well as the national airport system), to house and launch emergency preparedness and response flights and personnel. They also provide a base of operations for agricultural sprayers, oil and mineral aerial exploration, overnight packages, and much more. GA airports in areas more than 50 miles from a major airport provide a place for specialized medical personnel to fly into smaller communities that do not have medical facilities that provide those specialized services.
Many smaller cities across the country rely on their GA airports as their connection to the world. These airports provide air taxi services to the larger air service airports. These airports also provide launch points for corporate aircraft, aerial survey, search and rescue, law enforcement, fire patrols, charter, flight training, and so much more.
There are nearly 5,000 public-use GA airports across the country. These airports open the door to the world for their surrounding communities by providing a place for the safe and cost-efficient operation of business and recreational aviation. At the same time, these GA airports provide well-paying jobs for more than 500,000 people across the country, with an annual payroll of over $14 billion! For every dollar spent on aviation, $2.07 is generated in new economic activity. Clearly the value of a GA airport can now be seen, even though we’ve just scratched the surface!
Though many people may know and understand the use and some of the benefits of their community’s airport, they do not seem to grasp the importance of protecting that valuable community asset.
“Border creep” can literally grow to the actual property lines of the airport. When that happens it contributes to the severe restriction of use of that airport, if not its actual demise. Simply put “border creep” is the incessant development of land around an airport for housing, and other uses, that continually grows toward airport boundaries. While well planned growth can be extremely beneficial to the airport as well as the community, unplanned growth can cause the prompt loss of revenue and benefits that airport provides to the community.
When housing developments are built near an airport, noise complaints are one of the first signs the airport is being squeezed. If inadequate or improper land-use zoning is allowed by the community on surrounding airport property, obstructions built in safety zones or near aircraft flight paths can cause that airport to significantly reduce operations. That reduces the revenue and benefits the airport brings to that community, and impacts safety at the airport and within the community.
In the words of former Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Phil Boyer, “The incompatible encroachments on airport lands and in airport safety zones, effectively reduces the value of the airport by limiting or reducing its capacity to grow and attract business.” Mr. Boyer went on to say, “Developers or local officials look at airports and see what seems to them like empty space and (they) push to build houses or a shopping mall. Local governments feel pressure to use the land on publicly-owned airports to maximize their tax base.” But they too often fail to remember the valuable asset the airport is to their community.
Mr. Boyer provides an example of how unplanned development can impact the community’s airport. He says, “AOPA’s home airport, Frederick Municipal Airport next to our headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, is a perfect example of the problems arising from a lack of zoning authority. The City of Frederick is the sponsor, yet its zoning authority ends at its border with Frederick County a half-mile from the airport.
“Frederick County approved a massive residential development less than 1.5 miles east of the airport. The county also approved homes many years ago less than a half-mile south of the approach to the airport. Also, trees growing north of the instrument landing system runway have a direct impact on the utility of the ILS system, but because the trees are located in the county, the instrument approach minimums have been raised. In these cases, the city is unable to protect the full federal investment in this million-dollar, all-weather landing system.”
The paradox as can be seen with the previous examples is that when there is empty land surrounding an airport, though it is there for everyone’s safety, it is far too often regarded as a potential money-maker for a city. At the same time the value of that land to the airport and any users of that airport, for safety and risk mitigation, are either not understood or quite simply disregarded.
Developing around airport property significantly impacts the utility and value of that airport and what it brings to the community. It also raises the risk and safety potentials – not just for pilots – but also for anyone living near the approach or departure lanes any of the safety zones the airport may have, or should have. That is the airport paradox.