The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a study called General Aviation Airports: A National Asset, an 18-month study meant “to capture the many diverse functions of general aviation (GA) airports.” The study claims to “highlight the pivotal role GA airports play in US society, economy, and the entire aviation system.” However, it offers no critical analysis about whether the expense of these airports is justified in terms of economic or social benefit. There are also two appendixes to the study: Appendix A, which covers the Technical Analyses used in the study; and Appendix B, which provides a list of the General Aviation Airports examined in the study.
The study focuses on the 2,952 landing facilities that are included in the FAA’s national Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS), that are open to the public, that are eligible for Federal funding via the Airport improvement Program (AIP) and that are not one the 378 “primary” airports that support scheduled commercial air service. Also, the study does not include – and rightly so – the almost 16,000 privately owned airports, heliports, seaplane bases, and other landing facilities that are not in the NPIAS or eligible for AIP funding.
The FAA claims that “this strategic tool will help the FAA, state aeronautical agencies, and airport sponsors make planning decisions.” However, in developing the study, the FAA failed to meet with communities that may be opposed to having an airport in its midst. Speaking with those communities may have offered the FAA a critical view of the role that GA Airports play in a community’s life. Instead, the FAA worked with only with aviation-industry stakeholders including state aeronautical agencies, aviation associations, aviation user groups, airport directors, airport authorities, and airport planners – all people who have an interest in the unbridled expansion of airports. It also worked with local councils of government to the extent that they owned and/or operated an airport.
There is no doubt that GA Airports are an important feature of American life. As the FAA points out, GA Airports can serve many different functions and advance the public interest, “ensuring that Americans nationwide have access to medical flights, search and rescue, disaster relief, aerial firefighting, law enforcement, community access, commercial and industrial activity, flight instruction, and air cargo.” However, the study does not take into account the offsetting detriment that airports have or whether a particular area is sufficiently served by other airports – either public or private. It assumes that every airport is a needed, well-run, model of efficiency.
While the study’s alignment of GA Airports based on their existing activity levels – national, regional, local, and basic – is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. These categories only “reflect the current aviation activity at the airport, such as the number and type of based aircraft, number of passenger boardings, and the type of flights.” What is needed is a cost/benefit analysis. The FAA should not waste precious Federal funds on airports that are playgrounds for a privileged few or that are in need of money because they are not well-run or have few operations. Expanding an airport does not always lead to an expansion in airport revenues or benefit the community’s economy.
The intent of AIP is to provide needed funds for the expansion and support of airport to serve the public interest. If AIP funds are being used at GA Airports to support private interests (both in terms of ownership of the airports and use of the airports), that is a misuse of those funds. There are airports in this country that need to be closed or privatized because it is not in the public interest to keep them running. Although there may be an aviation interest in keeping these airports open, the larger public is the one who is paying the price. They are the ones who need to be consulted as to whether airports should stay or go.
The FAA has stated that it will incorporate findings of the study into existing GA airport guidance. That is good. The classification of GA Airports is an important step. The United States has the largest and most diverse network of airports in the world and general aviation is a critical component. GA airports do more than relieve congestion at other airports, and in 2009 contributed $38.8 billion to the economy. However, not all airports are equal in terms of what they bring to the table for the public good. Every day, each airport that receives Federal funds should have to justify every dollar it receives by contributing to the public good, not just the good of the aviation industry.