General aviation airports are not using most FAA grant money available to them because they cannot meet the agency’s requirements for accessing it, prompting calls for an easing of the restrictions.
Last year, the U.S.’s 2,950 non-primary airports—the majority of them GA-only—used only a quarter of $442 million in Non-Primary Entitlement (NPE) grant funds available to them, according to FAA data. The agency’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) gives each non-primary airport $150,000 annually. NPE grants can roll over for up to four years, meaning an airport can potentially bank up to $600,000. Unused money is redirected to the FAA for immediate re-allocation, often to commercial-service airports.
"As a result, hundreds of millions of NPE dollars are not being spent on their intended purpose, to help small GA airports,” AOPA president and CEO Mark Baker told the Senate aviation operations, safety and security subcommittee on April 5. Part of the problem is the FAA’s requirement for a 10-percent local match, Baker said. AOPA does not favor eliminating the match, but suggests that the FAA could lower the percentage or permit creative financing options.
In addition, GA airports would get a boost if the FAA broadened the scope of AIP-eligible projects, Baker added. The agency’s grants must support projects that emphasize safety, security, capacity or environmental improvements. Projects that are principally revenue-generating, such as hangars, are usually not eligible. Such projects are desirable to GA airports that rely on hangar-lease revenue to fund operations, Baker said, and they’re also attractive to private-sector partners.
"Public-private partnerships can go a long way to help cash-strapped local communities rebuild and reinvigorate their airports and increase economic output to the benefit of taxpayers and users of the airport,” Baker told lawmakers. "There is significant demand for hangar development at airports across the country, but in most cases their construction and refurbishment may not be financed by AIP grants."
Changes in regional air service could exacerbate the small-airport funding problem. Many regional airlines are facing a pilot shortage that they blame in part on new minimum-training standards that the FAA put in place in 2013. One ramification: cutting flights, usually using smaller aircraft serving smaller communities. In 2013, when the rules took effect, there were 416 airports that recorded at least 10,000 enplanements, according to FAA data. In 2014 and 2015, the figure was 398, the fewest since 2009, at the tail end of the Great Recession.
AIP grants are allocated partly on the basis of enplanement data. Airports with 10,000 or more enplanements get at least $1 million annually. Smaller airports deemed an integral part of the National Airspace System get $150,000 each, the NPE grants. While the DOT has programs to help subsidize air service in small communities, there is no comparable gap-filler for airport capital improvement programs.
"With this steep cliff in the structure of the apportionments to airports, over the long term an airport with fewer than 10,000 enplanements faces challenges in obtaining funds to maintain infrastructure that will attract or retain scheduled air service providers,” said Laurie Gill, mayor of Pierre, S.D., which saw its enplanements fall to 6,300 last year from 14,500 in 2013.
The problem may soon get worse. Research by InterVistas concludes that shifting regional airline business models, caused in part by the pilot shortage, could result in a reduction or elimination of services to 150 to 200 communities in the coming years.
"We support needed reforms to the Non-Primary Entitlement program to ensure continued access to these communities,” AOPA’s Baker told lawmakers.
The American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) says that helping larger airports would create a trickle-down effect. AAAE senior executive vice president Spencer Dickerson told lawmakers that raising the passenger facility charge (PFC) cap, which has been set at $4.50 per flight segment for 17 years, would drive more grant money to GA airports. Airports that collect PFCs have some of their AIP entitlements withheld, and Dickerson noted that most of these funds are redirected to GA facilities.