Airport Closures Not Always Easy

 - November 3, 2012, 4:50 AM

FAA statistics show a total of approximately 5,175 public-use airports in the U.S., down by approximately 170 since 2000. While many of the lost facilities were small strips suitable solely for small aircraft, there were a few notable closures such as the infamous midnight destruction of Chicago’s Meigs Field in 2003 and the closure of Atlantic City New Jersey’s Bader Field in 2006. According to the statistics, 27 facilities closed their doors in 2006, ranking that year as first for airport closures since 2000.

In many cases, the locations that closed were privately owned facilities with based aircraft and on-field operations that perhaps were established by aviation-minded individuals whose family no longer wanted to operate them. In some cases such fields saved. One example is Indianapolis Executive Airport (formerly Terry Airport), which was purchased by Hamilton County and remains a viable facility with more than 100 operations a day.

In other cases, the private owners felt they could realize more profit by closing the airport and selling it to developers or finding other uses for the property.

That “repurposing” can affect municipally owned airports as well. Blue Ash Airport in Cincinnati closed at the end of August following the city’s notification to the FAA, thus ending a five-year battle between the city and airport users. As recently as last year the city had promised that the airport would continue to operate albeit in a reconfigured form, but by mid-August crews had begun to remove the tanks in the fuel farm.

“The Cincinnati administration, led by Mayor Mark Mallory, has failed to honor previous commitments to AOPA and the aviation community that Blue Ash Airport would continue to operate as a general aviation airport,” said Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president of airport advocacy. Blue Ash had not received any federal funding grants in years, which permitted its owners to close it without opposition from the FAA. The airport, which dates back to the 1920s, was once the busiest non-tower facility in Ohio, according to Bill Christian, CEO of services provider Blue Ash Aviation, which plans to relocate to nearby Butler County Airport. The city of Blue Ash owns half the airport and plans to build a park and golf courses on its portion of the site, according to Christian.

Making the Case for Airport Closures

Shutting down an airport, especially a public-owned one, may not always go as smoothly as its owners might hope. That’s the lesson from some recent attempts at airport closures, as the FAA rejected petitions to close from the operators of Bakersfield Municipal Airport in California and Allentown Queen City Municipal Airport in Pennsylvania to close their respective airfields.

The agency has tough criteria for the closure of airports that have received federal funding, and petitioners must demonstrate how a proposed transfer or sale of airport property would benefit civil aviation. According to the FAA, such benefits may include “future growth in operations; increased capacity of the airport, advancement of the interests of the aeronautical users and service providers; and the local, regional and national interests of the airport.”

The FAA also specifies that the airport owner must comply with all federal obligations set forth under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) agreements, and the agency also stipulates that all airport revenue (including proceeds from the sale of any airport property) be invested in a replacement airport, reinvested in AIP-eligible projects or returned to the aviation trust fund. In the case of Allentown Queen City Municipal Airport, which sees approximately 50,000 operations a year, the agency has said that it will not consider a request to close the airport without prior approval of a replacement airport of equal or greater value to the aviation system.

In another attempted closure, St. Clair, Mo. city authorities are wrapping up the final details requested by the FAA in their nearly five-year battle to shutter St. Clair Regional Airport. The city must receive FAA approval to close the airport, since some of the grants it used to acquire land came from federal funding. “Under most conditions, AIP grants for publicly owned airports have a life expectancy of 20 years from the date of the last grant,” AOPA’s Dunn told AIN, “but when it comes to using federal funds for the acquisition of land, those grants don’t have an expiration date; they go on in perpetuity.” Among the requirements specified by the agency was a meeting with interested stakeholders, including tenants and AOPA.

According to the city, the facility–which has fewer than a dozen based aircraft and sees approximately 50 operations a week–has failed to be profitable and is a drain on finances that it cannot afford. It has become a hot-button topic among local political candidates in this election year, and officials have said they will not put money into the airport’s upkeep and development at the expense of essential city services. If it receives permission to close the field, the city hopes to boost its tax revenues by eventually luring retail development to the site, but Dunn believes the FAA will ultimately deny the request. “The FAA is required under policy to consider a request to release an airport from federal obligations, but it is not required to grant the request,” he said.