AIN Blog: We Shouldn't Say Goodbye To So Many Airports

 - June 10, 2017, 11:52 AM
Perhaps downtown Banning, Calif., would see a resurgence if the city decided to support its airport instead of closing the valuable facility. Photo: Matt Thurber

Here we go again. Yet another city has decided that its airport is no longer needed and should close so the property can be developed. This time it is the city of Banning, Calif., a small burg, population approximately 30,000, that most Californians know as a blip on the freeway on the way to Palm Springs or the nearby Morongo Casino. The city itself offers a unique southern California high-desert charm, with a pleasant downtown area populated with non-chain restaurants and even a charming little movie theater. Property in Banning is relatively inexpensive, especially in California terms. 

The airport is a decent facility, although a bit inconveniently located in a windy slot between San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains. The runway is 4,955 feet long and in decent condition. There aren’t a lot of amenities at the airport, although it is handily close to the city. 

What’ s missing at Banning is the same as many other airports in the U.S.: enthusiastic support by the airport’s owner. It’s kind of odd to be writing about closing such valuable facilities, when at the same time, the communities in China are racing to build hundreds of airports as quickly as possible. 

There is another, more famous airport that is on its way to being closed, the city-owned Santa Monica Airport (SMO) on the southern California coast just north of Los Angeles International. In a settlement agreement and consent decree with the FAA, the city now has the right to close its airport by the end of 2028. And in the shorter term, the city can and is going through with plans to shorten SMO’s runway to 3,500 feet from 4,973 feet, in an effort to block larger jets from operating there. 

Both of these airports share a singular characteristic: lack of support by the cities that own them.  

According to the Banning Press-Enterprise, the city’s mayor, George Moyer, doesn’t see any reason to keep “wasting money out there.” The plan would be to develop the airport property for other uses. 

In SMO’s case, the city is planning to build parks, but it is hard to believe that pressure from developers won’t result in building new homes and businesses on what is some of the most valuable land on this planet. 

The moves by Santa Monica and Banning are reminiscent of what happened to another southern California airport, in Rialto, which is roughly halfway between SMO and Banning. Rialto’s airport was admittedly run-down, but more as a result of lack of support by its owner than because of lack of support from the aviation community. Rialto was having a tough time getting permission to close its airport until a congressman stepped in with a bill to allow it to close. This was the only way to close an airport supported by taxpayer funds, until we learned that it was possible for a city such as Santa Monica to pressure the FAA into allowing it to close.

The fact is that airports close when they lose support from their local communities. That’s what happened in Rialto, and what is happening in Banning and Santa Monica. Local citizens simply don’t perceive any benefit in there being an airport nearby, other than the big airport where airliners take them on long-distance trips. 

Let’s turn the tables and imagine that Banning and Santa Monica decided to support their airports and make them even more useful for their citizens. There is a great example of how this can work at Biggin Hill Airport near London. Of course, that airport is privately owned and has been for years, but its suffered from the same problems: lack of neighbor support, pressure from local developers and for a while, poor marketing of its benefits. The owners put a lot of effort into turning around the perceptions of the local citizens, making the airport more environmentally friendly, addressing noise issues, but also making sure that the locals got to participate in the airport’s benefits, including providing training and creating jobs for the people who live nearby. There is a lot more to the Biggin Hill story, but suffice it to say that its owners approached the airport’s problems intelligently, with a view toward embracing the local community, and they plan for their airport to remain viable for a long time.

It’s always struck me as strange in the U.S. to see airports that completely ignore their local communities then wonder why no one comes to their rescue when pressure builds to turn the runways into shopping malls, office buildings and houses. 

Banning Airport could have a lot going for it. The airport is certainly large enough to allow quite a variety of aircraft types to use the airport. It is close enough to the Morongo Casino that a shuttle service to Southern California destinations would make perfect sense. The airport would be an ideal site for pilot and mechanic schools; with so many complaints of personnel shortages, why not build more schools to train and supply new workers?

And what if the city of Santa Monica embraced its airport? The opportunities could be incredible. For example, a warm welcome to the many business travelers that fly their jets into Santa Monica would do wonders for the city’s reputation and revenues. Or making the airport a hub for regional on-demand air-taxi flights, an idea brilliantly suggested by local airport proponent John Jerabek in this interesting blog post. The city could work more closely with people like Josh Ochs at Media Leaders, who welcomes parents and kids every few months to come experience and learn about aviation and has even created a special Jr. Aviator Logbook that welcomes kids to aviation. The same should go for EAA Young Eagles flights, with the city promoting and encouraging the opportunity for kids to see their beautiful city from the air. And Santa Monica-based Angel Flight West and its public charity flights should be honored and encouraged by the city. 

Airports are such valuable resources. Locales used to expend enormous efforts to build their airports and support them, and by doing so, help their cities and regions grow. Allowing airports to disappear is the wrong way to go about keeping a city or region healthy. Rialto is a good example; it’s a lovely city, but all that empty land that used to be an airport is now just a bunch of uninspiring warehouses that bring tax money and low-wage jobs but nothing else of real long-term value.