Minnesota pilots upset over plans to close Crystal Airport

What is the best utilization of land? If an airport is operating in the red, should it close? How many operations are “enough” to justify keeping an airport open?

These are the questions swirling around Crystal Airport (MIC) in Minneapolis-St. Paul in the wake of plans to redevelop the land. In late October, the Northwest Corridor Partnership said it will pursue closing the airport to redevelop it into homes, businesses and factories.

MIC, owned by the Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC), is one of six reliever airports in the Twin Cities. Supporters of its closure note the proceeds from its sale could be used to make improvements at the other reliever airports. However, state law would have to be amended to allow the sale, because MAC is not allowed to decrease runway capacity without the approval of the state legislature. The FAA would also have to approve the closure.

The airport’s closure is part of a long-range plan for the city of Crystal. The city’s comprehensive plan, which goes through the year 2020, indicates the property is “underutilized,” according to Patrick Peters, the city’s community development director.

Built decades ago far from urban population areas, the airport now sits on some 430 acres and is penned in by homes, shopping centers, light manufacturing and warehousing.

The airport has a tower and four runways, three paved and one turf. The longest runway measures 3,266 feet. The number of annual operations has fallen far below numbers set in 1964, suggesting the airport has outlived it usefulness.

“The number of operations at Crystal have decreased in recent years,” concedes Patrick Hogan, MAC’s director of public affairs.

There were 98,612 operations in 2003, down from 124,640 in 1964, he reported. “But you have to remember that numbers in GA overall have decreased in the years since Sept. 11,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the economy too.”

Crystal is a casualty of the terrorist attacks, said Gary Schmidt, director of reliever airports in the Twin Cities. “Because of the airport’s proximity to the metropolitan area, it was shut down for an extended period of time,” he said. “As a result, three flight schools closed down. The decline in the number of annual operations at the airport has a lot to do with the loss of those businesses. Prior to the attacks, we had done 170,000 operations annually.”

Another argument for closure is the public’s perception that the airport is dangerous. The airport is surrounded by single family residential neighborhoods, and according to the information supplied by Peters, the city believes the airport represents a “significant risk to life, property and aviation safety.”

“To be fair to the city of Crystal, about 15 or 20 years ago, there were a number of accidents where airplanes crashed into neighborhoods near the airport,” said Schmidt. “Most of the accidents were caused by pilot error.”

Economics is also fueling the push for closure. Some of that pressure is coming from major airlines, including Northwest, which claims it is unfair for the reliever airports to be subsidized by fees collected at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). All six reliever fields are subsidized by these fees. The idea is that GA traffic uses the reliever fields so that larger, commercial operations can run more smoothly at MSP.

But the airlines argue that it doesn’t make sense for cash-strapped airlines to pay for someone else’s operation, especially when the need for a particular airport is questioned.

Crystal is not self-sustaining, operating at a $400,000 annual deficit, according to Schmidt. “On one hand, it might make sense to close the airport, but then you would have to spend the money to make significant improvements to the other relievers to absorb the extra traffic.”

There are 263 aircraft and five businesses based at Crystal. “Our remaining relievers probably can’t absorb that much activity without significant improvements to them,” he noted.

Even if MAC decided to close Crystal, the final decision would be the FAA’s. Grant assurances have been signed with the FAA, requiring the airport to remain open unless all the money could be paid back. Schmidt was not sure how much grant money the airport would have to pay back.

“The FAA is not inclined to support the closure of any airports at this point in time,” Schmidt said.

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