Airport Closures Not Always Easy

 - November 3, 2012, 4:50 AM
Cincinnati’s Blue Ash Airport closed at the end of August, and the city plans to build a park and golf courses on the site.

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 were 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.

Comments

Jerry Woodward's picture

Why was Chicago mayor allowed to close Meigs field in 2003 without any penalties.
If the FAA allows funds to be used for the support of the airfield the city should be forced to return the funds or have it taken out of any future government funding it may receive.

Bob m's picture

The city ended up being fined. I don't remember the amount but it was in the 7 figure range.

Bob m's picture

I should have looked it up first. The fine was small, $33,000, but the city had to pay back $1,000,000 of misused funds.

The fine was for terminating a charted instrument approach without 30 days notice. At the time, the maximum fine was $1,000 per day. That has since been raised to $10,000 per day.

Dave 's picture

The city wasn't fined! The Mayor wasn't fined!

The taxpayers were fined.

His Lordship Mayor Daley did as he pleased in the middle of the night just like when the new healthcare bill was passed, Unilaterally in the middle of the night behind closed doors. No opposition was allowed. That's the Chicago way.

Ed Sunderland's picture

This is a sad commentary on General Aviation. Today's economy under lackluster presidential leadership has driven small business underground. With the demise of the housing and real estate market the rest of the world is suffering.
We need a stable economy, stable fuel prices, and common sense leadership which we haven't had.

When general aviation comes roaring back, it will be squeezed by fuel prices and fewer airports that will not help. People may think airports aren't needed until you need them and building new ones is almost unthinkable. Right now the fridge is bare but how many people sell their fridge? Fuel prices are exponentially high but you aren't going to sell your car, you just drive less. It is a shame we are losing general aviation manufacturing too like Sirrus to the Chinese Communists and Piper to the sultan of Brunei.

I hope that aviation groups will fight hard to maintain what we have now. When I started flying in the mid 1970's there were 4 active airports within about a 12 mile circle around Redding California. We used to airport hop on weekends and some nights. Now there are two, but the two that had the most character and where we had the most fun are gone.

Ron's picture

We have too many public-use general aviation airports competing for a dwindling number of users, and often they are located within a short distance from one another. St. Clair, MO is a case in point. An airport with three others nearby, each with user demands that remain unsatisifed because of a lack of grant or sponsor funding. Why not let such underused airports close and apply the proceeds from the sale of those airports routed to their nearby competitor facilities? The FAA has not been able to fund the true capital investment needed at the national system of general aviation airports. Federal appropriations have not met the funding needs identified in the FAA's NPIAS. Redistributing the funds from the sale of airports to the more promising airports in their vicinity goes a lot further to generating a benefit to civil aviation than having these airports stay open, witness deteriorating facilities and drain local taxpayer resources. Current FAA policies were written when general aviation was a growth market and they are not relevant in today's world. FAA's ASSET Study shows nearly 300 airports as not being able to be classified as to their use. It's time to rethink the FAA approach to funding general aviation, especially those airports serving light aircraft.

Sharon Stewart's picture

If a city, county or private individual takes government funds for airport land acquisition, expansion etc., then the funds should be returned when the airport is closed or sold. They should be put back into the FAA Airport Fund for further use. This OUR money, the U. S. tax payer.

Brien A. Seeley's picture

America's general aviation is dying due to its high cost, small userbase (licensed pilots) and poor utility (surface gridlock makes the ground travel legs to and from airport take 3 times longer than the air travel).

The solution is to grow the userbase by bringing forth autonomous, ultra-quiet, ESTOL Sky Taxis through a series of technology prizes. The CAFE Green Flight Challenge Program FAA grant would do exactly this, as follow-on to the NASA Green Flight Challenge prize that became a leading contender for the Collier Trophy. Would our GA airports get busy again if any of our 300 million citizens could go there, get in a Sky Taxi, and use their credit card to activate its touch-screen map of destinations? The technology for this is already waiting in the wings. Save airports by emailing Michael.huerta@faa.gov and urge him to fund the CAFE Green Flight Challenge Program grant.

Walter Peterson 's picture

GROW General Aviation by:
- Encourage NOT discourage ‘through the fence' operations at public airports, so I can live with my plane, AND have the enhanced safety of ILS/lighting... etc (effectively available at public airports with Federal support. I.e. What private strip can afford an ILS?)
- Eliminate the 3rd class medical for non-commercial flying, so I don’t live in fear of every AME… I would then be more interested in expending my capital on aircraft/upgrades/services and property with through the fence access.
- When I can step out of my kitchen into my hanger, and fly off…. When I can fly home with the enhanced safety of ILS at my home airport… When I can feel safe to spend my capital on something that will not end at the next AME visit… Then General aviation becomes something I will help grow.. Until then…. I often consider selling my plane… Expensive, inconvenient and over regulated… What is the point in ownership?
Still flying on passion, in spite of the(Of the airlines, by the airlines, for the airlines) FAA.
Cheers
Walt
PPL, S.E.L, Glider Owner /operator.

Jim De Vries's picture

I am a tenant at The St. Clair Airport. The city has diverted the airport revenue into the general funds of the city for many years. It took eight attempts to get the city records, which also included intervention by the States Attorney Generals office. The city has taken an approach to the closing by dismantling the airport, by neglect. Our rotating beacon is out, half of the lights on the windsock are out, and over a dozen runway lights are out. The pilots on the field started to repair these items on their own with donated parts, and we were threatened with arrest by the city, and forced to stop repairs. The city nor the newspaper are a reliable source for information on this airport.

Richard W. Arnold's picture

Many publically owned, public use airport sponsors (City, County, etc) complain that their airports are not self-sustaining, as FAA them to strive for. As a result, the airports must be "subsidized" with General Fund taxpayer dollars. Many of these airports are very small, yet do receive FAA AIP funds, either directly or through block grants, as we do in Texas. What is lost in all of this is that the sponsor should do an economic impact analysis, the vast majority of which show that, while the airport may be "in the red" on the ledger, it actually has a very positive impact on the local economy. How? Well, for one thing, local and transient airport users spend money in the local community. In the economic impact model, a dollar is spent and respent approximately 2.5 times, before it leaves the community. When applied to the other airport revenues it almost always amounts to well over the "red ink," reflected in the ledger, thus making the airport, effectively, self-sustaining.
There are many other local entities that have the same effect, e.g., Parks and Recreation, with its many ball fields, soccer facilities, etc.; and special festivals, such as our own Texas Reds Steak and Grape Festival, where local and out-of- town visitors spent well beyond the City's out of pocket investment, thus giving profits to local businesses and the tax base.
In addition, our airport (Coulter Field [CFD]) complements the neighboring primary commercial service airport by supporting activities that are less desirable at Easterwood (CLL).
The trick is to convince the City (in this case) that this is really a fact. Hard to do, but not if everyone pitches in and does some jawboning.
Think about it, then do something.

Ken R's picture

Chicago, Mayor Daley and Meigs Field. What a joke and the joke is on the taxpayers, pilots and the Tuskegee Airmen EAA Young Eagles Program that had been successfully operating without incident at Meigs from 1994 until Daley destroyed the airport and the dreams of countless youngsters in 2003.

Jim De Vries's picture

The city is presently under investigation by the Unites States Department of Transportation’s Of Inspector General for revenue diversion.

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