General Aviation Airports Facing New, Growing Pressures

 - March 1, 2021, 8:30 AM
Traffic at Teterboro Airport dropped from 140,000 in 2019 to a little more than 70,000 in 2020.

Three years ago, the fate of Coleman A. Young International Airport outside of Detroit looked bleak. The facility had fallen into disrepair and had little community support. But when officials started discussing possibly repurposing the facility for other uses, the aviation community quickly organized and began an education campaign on how it could contribute to the local community.

The result, said Alex Gertsen, director of airports and ground infrastructure for NBAA, was a “180-degree turnaround.” The city has now submitted an airport layout plan that would include lengthening the runway and a number of safety enhancement measures.

“It is incredibly exciting to see this success for an airport that was really struggling,” Gertsen said, adding that with plans in the works, “It will be a state-of-the-art airport.”

“For 10 years it was really difficult,” Jason Watt, the city’s airport director, told NBAA. “Now I can see how bright the future looks for this airport. The challenge has been met with a significant reward, and that makes it all worth it.”

Gertsen highlighted this airport as an example of how general aviation airport advocacy can and does work. He also stressed the importance of continuing that advocacy especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought new concerns and threats to the general aviation airport community. Those concerns come in addition to the long-standing battles that have continued over the fate of certain of these facilities.

Pandemic’s Pinch on Revenues

A key concern that emerged during the pandemic is the decline in revenues at business and general aviation airports that came with the noted drop-off in operations.

According to FAA data, business aircraft operations had hit a 10-year high of 4.53 million in 2019. In 2020, this had fallen to 3.5 million. “We are nowhere near where we were a year ago,” said Christa Luca, NBAA senior v-p of government affairs, in a webinar during NBAA’s virtual BACE late last year.

Perhaps one of the most notable declines is the nation’s busiest business aviation facility, Teterboro Airport, which saw traffic plunge by 50 percent from 140,000 in 2019 to a little more than 70,000 last year. Van Nuys in California saw traffic slide from 58,000 in 2019 to 47,000 in 2020, while operations at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston experienced a decline from 49,000 to fewer than 37,000.

Many of the business and general aviation airports have experienced similar declines even as health and safety concerns have driven new customers into private flying. A key reason for this is the fact that overarching corporate policies have kept a large number of Part 91 operations grounded. The good news is most companies have hung on to their flight department personnel and infrastructure. Even so, Gertsen said, “It has been a challenge to the industry.”

Gertsen concedes that there are pockets where traffic has ticked up, particularly in recreational destinations. One such example is Palm Beach International, which experienced a slight year-over-year increase in operations. This is also true at some airports that host substantial flight training activity, he added.

But even at those locations, the types of operations have changed. The ultra-long-range aircraft that required heavy fuel lifts have quieted. Shorter trips mean fewer fuel sales and revenues. “Across the board, there are airports that are struggling,” he said.

This has extended to businesses that serve those airports. Many airport businesses had asked for deferred rents, Gertsen said, noting one airport manager mentioned to him that now those businesses are asking for rent forgiveness rather than payment plans to catch up.

Concerned about this dynamic, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) released a white paper, “Recommended Practices for Airport Sponsors and Commercial Aviation Businesses in Addressing Leasehold Issues in Response to Covid-19,” for airports and their businesses struggling with revenue, employee retention, and financial uncertainty during the pandemic.

The aim of the paper is to foster collaborative approaches in addressing solutions, and NATA officials say they have heard that “there have been great communications between airports and commercial aeronautical businesses on this front.”

NATA also had worked with the FAA on the issue and the agency had updated its Information for Airport Sponsors Considering Covid-19 Restrictions or Accommodations document a number of times and included sections on rent abatement and deferral.

Meanwhile, recognizing the severe funding shortfall concerns, Congress allotted two tranches of relief aid to airports. The Cares Act set aside $10 billion for airports, but of that, only $100 million was marked for general aviation airports. This led to numerous groups appealing to lawmakers for additional assistance. NATA president and CEO Timothy Obitts noted that with the general aviation set-aside, “thousands of general aviation airport sponsors [were] eligible to receive $30,000 or less under the Cares Act, with many receiving only $1,000.”

Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives, agreed, saying the Cares act amount was “nowhere near what is needed going forward.”

Congress responded with a second tranche in the sweeping appropriations and relief bill passed in December. This time, $2 billion was set aside for airports, with $45 million directed to general aviation. A third tranche appeared to be on its way through President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package. House managers included another $8 billion for airports, including $100 million for general aviation and non-primary commercial airports. House aviation subcommittee chairman Rick Larsen (D-Washington) supported this additional aid for airports, stressing that the pandemic is still ongoing. 

“The important role GA airports play in our transportation system has been realized in Congress,” said Jim Coon, senior v-p of government affairs and advocacy for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “Members representing communities with GA airports understand the vital link airports provide to thousands of communities across the country.”

“We’re very thankful for the action on Capitol Hill in recognizing the needs of airports,” Gertsen agreed, but said the industry would continue to push for investments to help these facilities. “As we look into 2021, we will look for additional funding opportunities. We want to make sure aviation is included.”

He noted the Biden Administration has expressed a strong interest in moving forward with infrastructure investment, recognizing this can help provide a boost to the economy. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had expressed those sentiments as well during his confirmation hearings, calling infrastructure investment “part and parcel” of economic recovery.

Pandemic Plays into Perception

While airports try to shore up their bottom lines, they still face perception issues. The pandemic has brought a mixed reaction on this front.

Early into the crisis, the pandemic sparked some challenges with local leaders citing health and safety concerns in attempting to curb operations at general aviation facilities, Gertsen noted, citing airports in Puerto Rico and Idaho as examples. But advocates, working with the FAA, were able to ward off some of these efforts.

Despite these challenges, general aviation airports took on new importance and recognition during the pandemic. Importantly, as airlines have cut back schedules, reaching smaller cities or more remote locations has become more difficult. At some airports, airlines have drawn down flights to once a day. Business aviation has been able to fill that void and it is another reason why more people have been drawn to business aviation, noted Dan Hubbard, senior v-p of communications for NBAA.

At the same time, these airports have been able to spotlight other benefits during the crisis, as personal protective equipment is able to reach remote locations through these facilities. A broad swath of the business aviation community got involved, donating supplies or flights, to ensure this equipment got distributed. Angel Flight volunteers were among the many to step up to ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) could get delivered to medical facilities in remote regions.

“The Covid pandemic has helped local leaders and communities realize, even more so, the important role airports play from both an economic and humanitarian standpoint,” Coons said. “The ability to move medical personnel and PPE to assist in the fight against Covid has again shined a bright light on the importance of GA airports.”

Concerned about perception issues and the need to highlight the benefits of the airports, NATA kicked off a series of General Aviation Advancing America (GAAA) gatherings that are bringing together airport, aviation business, civic, and business leaders together. These events foster discussions to communicate the contributions of the industry to local communities. The association already has reached more than two dozen locations across the country through the initiative.

“The challenge is really improving community relations and getting communities to recognize that the airport is a crucial junction for economic development and access,” said Ryan Waguespack, senior v-p of aircraft management, air charter services, and MROs for NATA. He added that along with PPE, “now we’re pushing that your runway is an opportunity for vaccine distribution and getting it into rural America.”

Despite the humanitarian and access benefits, noise and perception issues persist. While a slowing of traffic has generally brought down the overall noise from business jets, Gertsen said the quieting of jets has highlighted other aircraft, particularly piston-powered ones.

“With fewer flights in the air, when you do have a flight it becomes more noticeable,” he said. “Communities might have had more jets and helicopters pre-Covid. Now they are noticing piston aircraft.”

NBAA has focused on this aspect through webinars and podcasts to remind pilots to fly neighborly and remain conscious of noise abatement procedures when approaching an airport. This is particularly important since the pandemic has affected personal habits with many more working at home. People living near airports will notice aircraft far more if they are exposed to overhead flights at times when they would have otherwise been at work.

Recent FAA research has underscored the importance of this, finding “aircraft noise often results in higher levels of annoyance compared to the same level of noise from ground transportation sources.”

SMO accommodated large jets. Photo: Matt Thurber
Before shortening the runway to 3,500 feet, SMO accommodated large jets. Photo: Matt Thurber

Fight for Survival Continues

While new concerns emerged, many of the long-standing battles have continued during the pandemic—with a few facilities facing possible extinction. “We’re still very much going strong advocating for Santa Monica and East Hampton,” Gertsen said.

Business and general aviation advocates suffered a setback in their fight to save Santa Monica Airport (SMO) in California last year when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a case seeking to overturn a 2017 FAA agreement that paved the way for the closure of the airport after Dec. 31, 2028. The agreement essentially freed the city of Santa Monica from legal obligations to run the airport in perpetuity and enabled the city to shorten the runway to 3,500 feet.

Despite the ruling, general aviation advocates stressed the fight is not over. Christian Fry, president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, told listeners of an NBAA webinar that the timeline is becoming more imminent. “We’re on the better side of eight years.” But at the same time, he tried to dispel the notion that the fight is over, and the airport closed.

He said SMO is still busy, hosting about 80,000 operations a year. While the airport does generate noise complaints, about 70 percent of complaints come from less than a half-dozen households, he said.

“We’re working on trying to help people understand closure is not mandated,” he said. In fact, Gertsen added that there have been some recent changes in the city council that may become more favorable toward the airport. Meanwhile, NBAA is continuing to appeal a Part 16 finding over the use of airport revenues by the city of Santa Monica while it took steps to limit use of SMO.

Across the country at East Hampton Airport (HTO) on Long Island, New York, less than a year remains before grant assurances expire, freeing the town of East Hampton to close the facility. Gertsen was encouraged that the aviation industry has coalesced in their efforts to convince local authorities of the importance of the facility, despite what he called were efforts by the town to splinter that support.

It also has gotten a boost from a local organization, the East Hampton Community Alliance, which is advocating for a range of businesses and on a number of issues in the town. HTO has become one of its focal points and has released a study highlighting that the airport in 2019 supported 872 jobs, $34.9 million in labor income, and $77.5 million in aviation-related business output.

Jeff Smith, chair of NBAA’s Access Committee and a chief pilot actively involved in the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, last year outlined an overwater initiative developed in coordination with the aviation community and air traffic control. “We know, the operators know...that there’s an end date and we still have to mitigate and get this community compatibility going if we are going to save the airport,” he said during an NBAA webinar.

In Hawaii, Dillingham Airfield is also facing potential closure after state transportation officials said they had planned to end its operating lease in June instead of in 2025. The state operates the facility under a lease with the U.S. Army. That notice mobilized airport supporters, who have touted that the facility is home to 11 businesses and produced $12 million in economic output, AOPA noted.

AOPA is urging support for state legislation to create an airport authority to run the facility. “AOPA believes that this would be the best solution for a prosperous future for general aviation at Dillingham, and we will be strongly supporting legislation expected to be introduced at the start of the 2021 Hawaii legislative session,” AOPA Western Pacific regional manager Melissa McCaffrey said.

Airport advocates are also carefully monitoring calls for closing Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles that surfaced after an aircraft crashed in a neighborhood near the airport. Gertsen noted that this is requiring an education process to help the community understand airport grant obligations, as well as the airport’s role in the community. “We don’t want to downplay the accident, but there needs to be an understanding of the role the airport plays,” he said.

Further north in California, Santa Clara County in November voted to stop accepting airport grants for Reid-Hillview Airport to free it from airport obligations. At this point, the airport is under obligations through 2031, providing time for continued advocacy.

While the fight for survival at these facilities continues, a new concern emerged when Orange County officials put operational limitations in new FBO leases at John Wayne Airport. Essentially, these provisions would have prohibited JSX from operating its hop-on scheduled charter service out of those facilities.

Gertsen said the limits raised concerns about violations of airport grant obligations surrounding access. However, JSX was able to secure a temporary restraining order and local officials ultimately shelved the restrictions.

Greenville Downtown Airport Park
Airport officials built a park and attracted a restaurant to draw community interest in Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina.

Activism and Education

Most airport activists agree that much of the success of an airport is education and working with the local community. Waguespack noted that during his GAAA tours, “You can tell when the airport community is vibrant. The [facility] is growing and prospering. There is a direct correlation to community engagement.”

He added that he’s walked into certain environments with aviation business, city, and airport leaders “and the tensions are palpable.” This translates into what they see on the airport. “Is it a booming airfield? Are there new businesses coming in or is it not?”

He cited an example of Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina as a success story in this area. An airport official there decided the community needed more involvement, so she facilitated the building of a park at the airport to draw in families. “And then a restaurant comes,” Waguespack said, “and the community comes out. This feeds into flight training, and then businesses and workforce. It’s not a nuisance when they wrap in the community involvement. It elevates the airport.”

Waguespack emphasized that there is a real need for education and how an airport communicates the value it brings. He noted some states have done an “incredible job” at developing economic impact studies on the values of airports. But this varies across the country.

AOPA’s Coon said this has served as the basis for its Airport Support Network, which is now 2,000-volunteers strong. These volunteers work throughout the country to spread the message of how airports contribute to job creation, economic development, and gateways for access to communities.

“While we have not given up on SMO and we continue to work with HTO, relations with most all airports across the country, thousands of them, are very positive,” Coon concluded.