FAA to Bakersfield: What part of perpetuity don’t you understand?

The FAA has responded to a request from the city of Bakersfield to close Bakersfield Municipal Airport (L45).

The answer was a resounding “No!”

The FAA recently sent a 10-page letter to officials of the Southern California city, explaining why the airport, which has been owned by the city since 1985, will not be allowed to close.

“We evaluated their arguments carefully, but this was an unequivocal decision,” states FAA Spokesman Ian Gregor. “What it came down to was that the airport was developed with more than $10 million in FAA sponsored grants and the city, in accepting those grants, agreed to keep it open in perpetuity. It is as simple as that.”

The letter of denial was the final stop on a long journey, notes Rhonda Smiley, public information officer for the city of Bakersfield.

“The council directed the staff to look into the closure. It has been on the table for a little over a year,” she says, explaining the letter of request for closure, drafted after extensive study, was sent to the FAA in January of this year.

Among the arguments the city offered for closure was the perceived lack of activity at the airport.

“That was probably based on several factors, such as the number of leases, conversations with the tenants and a visual study,” she says.

City officials also claimed the airport is a financial drain on the community and there are safety issues due to the airport’s lack of a control tower and its proximity to Meadows Field Airport (KBFL), which is the area airport served by scheduled commercial air service.

“There have been incidents that I would not describe as near misses but that the flight paths from airplanes that took off from Bakersfield Municipal and Meadows intersected,” Smiley says. “But the FAA investigated it and told us, in their opinion, that the airport was safe.”

City officials also argued that the highest and best use of the land is redevelopment, while adding that closure is needed to improve a blighted and economically depressed area of the city.

In its response letter, the FAA, noting that the city agreed to maintain the airport in perpetuity when it accepted federal funds, responded with a terse “change in the city’s priorities does not eliminate its federal obligations.”

The FAA also refuted claims that the airport was underutilized, noting that 25,000 to 30,000 annual operations indicated a healthy airport, then chided the city for not encouraging commerce by not accepting new leases from would-be tenants.

It was a Catch-22 situation, notes Smiley, saying that the city was reluctant to add more tenants to the airport in the event it did close.

City officials say they will not fight the FAA’s decision, but clearly some are not happy with it.

The effort to close the airport was led by City Council member Irma Carson, who represents Ward 1, where the airport is located. She claims the airport is not a benefit to the public.

“It is only used by a private group of pilots,” she says. “There is no public access. There is no tower at the airport and there are only one or two airplanes that fly a week. Mostly they fly at night or on Sunday. There is no security out there and it is not safe because of the lack of a control tower. There was a crash out there before and there are near crashes all the time.”

A search of the NTSB database going back to 1985 confirmed there have been 40 accidents or incidents in the vicinity of the airport, resulting in the loss of 13 lives.

Carson says despite these statistics, the FAA decided the airport was safe. “We would hate for a tragedy to occur before the FAA does its job,” she says.

Carson claims the FAA is biased and would rather keep an airport open than do what is best for the citizens of Bakersfield.

“I’m sure if they had to live out here they would have made a different decision,” she says. “The lack of security is a major concern to the neighbors. It’s just an open field and anyone can fly in there. You’d think in this time of terrorism that that would be a major concern for the TSA.”

Carson also maintains the airport is a financial drain on the city.

“The city put $2.6 million of the general fund money into the airport,” she says. “In the past it has been an albatross. We can’t afford to maintain it.”

In the city’s letter to the FAA, officials noted that “even after operating the airport for 20 years, the cumulative totals show that expenditures exceed revenues by $27,392.”

The FAA countered that there are 100 aircraft based at the airport, which is open to the public, and on average the airport supports 25,000 annual operations, a scenario significantly different from the one Carson alluded to. And as to the airport’s economic stability, the FAA reviewed the city’s own summary of Actual Revenues and Expenditures and determined that since 1994-1995 the city has operated the airport with a surplus averaging $42,000 per year.

Brad Underwood, Bakersfield’s public works operations manager who manages the airport, noted that now that the FAA has shot down the closure idea, leases would be negotiated again.

“We have seven or eight leases in the pipeline now, and there are people who want leases in order to build hangars,” he said. “We have a waiting list right now of at least 20 people.

“In addition, Kern Charter, the FBO at the airport, has expressed an interest in expanding their facility to accommodate larger aircraft and another tenant is interested in building a restaurant on the airport,” Underwood continued. “We expect to see ground broken on the restaurant project in 30 to 60 days.”

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