Teterboro operator vows to fight weight proposal

 - October 8, 2007, 5:09 AM

It started several years ago when Boeing began selling its BBJ in numbers that the airline manufacturer never expected (25 in the first year, 82 overall since its inception in 1996). Though bizliners are not a new concept, the BBJ stirred some issues that were mostly dormant at North American airports. Now, the prospect of landing 171,000-pound-mtow BBJs at what have been exclusively general aviation airports has opened a barrel of political snakes–the poisonous kind.

At the core of the snakepit is Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, the closest general aviation airport to Manhattan. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the business jet mecca, has come out against allowing BBJs into Teterboro, claiming that the airport’s 30-year-old 100,000-pound weight limit should stand. Boeing has objected, claiming that the weight limit is based on unsound engineering and its motivation has more to do with winning votes than preserving concrete.

Boeing believes that the weight limit is being promoted as a secondary means to prohibit BBJs at the airport and the real issues are noise and public opinion. In the meantime, the FAA has proposed creating a national set of policy standards for weight-bearing criteria at airports. If an airport authority imposes a weight limit to protect its concrete from crumbling, it ought to be able to justify the limit under the proposed FAA standards. If the FAA’s rules dictate that the airport’s runways and taxiways ought to be able to support the weight, it had better allow the airplanes in or risk losing federal airport improvement program funding.

But the proposed FAA policy is just that–a policy. How much teeth it might have is questionable. The only threat the FAA can wield is to rescind federal funding. In the case of Teterboro, that would be tantamount to closing the airport, which would be fine for many of those who object to BBJs.

Opposing the FAA’s new policy is Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), whose constituency neighbors Teterboro. He has introduced legislation to thwart the FAA policy even before it is established. Similar provisions were attached to the U.S. Senate FAA funding bill by New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg.

Boeing, the FAA and most of the general/ business aviation industry have reason to fear the consequences of such national legislation. Whether or not BBJs are ever allowed into Teterboro, the question remains, “Who sets weight limits and under what criteria?” Up to now, airport authorities large and small (excluding those that involve scheduled airline service), submitted their own weight limits to the FAA for categorization in the Airport Facilities Directory. The limits were accepted at face value.

The fear is that an airport authority facing public pressure to curtail selected operations could suddenly decide that 100,000 pounds, 50,000 pounds or 20,000 pounds is its new weight limit. If the Senate bill is passed as written, local airport authorities will be free to use weight limits to discriminate against aircraft when the real objection might be based on other factors, such as noise. While the FARs have explicit directions for determining if an airport is subject to excessive noise (FAR Part 161) and detailed studies must be completed, no such studies would be required to ban aircraft based on weight under the legislation now pending.

At Teterboro, the Port Authority has precedent on its side, in that the 100,000-pound limit has been in effect for more than 30 years. But the Port Authority’s arguments have often included statements to the effect that “large” airplanes should use the Port Authority’s “big three” airports (JFK International, Newark Liberty International and La Guardia) and preserve reliever airports such as Teterboro for “small” aircraft. Port Authority director William DeCota admitted, “Our policy restricting airplanes weighing 100,000 pounds and more also was created to ensure that Teterboro Airport would remain a general aviation airport while heavier commercial aircraft used Newark Liberty and Kennedy International Airports, as well as La Guardia Airport.”

The language of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act permits no such distinction between large and small aircraft, but rather specifies that no type of aircraft or operation may be unduly discriminated against with regard to airport access.

Beyond Boeing’s contention that the weight-bearing issue is a smokescreen for other objections, the OEM has argued that Teterboro’s role in the Port Authority’s overall plan is really that of a “business airport” and the BBJ should be welcome based on its mission. Further, some have projected that if the Port Authority’s (and Rothman’s) “large plane, small plane” policy were extrapolated to a logical conclusion, all non-BBJ-size business jets could be banned from the big three airports and, ironically, many would land in Rothman’s constituents’ neighborhood at Teterboro Airport.

The issue has gained national attention. A USA Today story published on August 25 cited a court case in Boise, Idaho, in which a Californian is asking a federal court to rescind a 75,000-pound limit at Friedman Memorial Airport, Hailey, Idaho, near Sun Valley. According to the story, wealthy developer Ronald Tutor wants to fly into Hailey in his BBJ and questions the engineering data supporting the airport’s current 75,000-pound limit. The USA Today story–which also quoted Teal Group researcher Richard Aboulafia calling the BBJ “the Hummer of the industry”–cited similar cases in Stuart, Fla. (Witham Field) and Cincinnati (Lunken Airport).

NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure Bob Lamond said the association is concerned enough about the weight issue to have scheduled a working session on the problem for its annual convention this month in Orlando, Fla.