For the past 10 years I have been hearing from readers concerned about their airports. Usually it begins with a phone call from someone who is upset because “they” are trying to close the airport. Sometimes “they” have names. Other times they don’t.
The names and locations of the airports change, but often the issues are the same. And — Meigs Field not withstanding — very rarely do airports close suddenly. Usually there are a lot of warning signs that an airport is endangered.
Many advocacy groups, such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and state aviation associations, have guidelines for protecting airports, but by the time those groups are called in, it may be too late. That means it’s up to airport tenants, pilots and aircraft owners to pick up on the signs that something is coming down the runway, so to speak, and take action.
Realize that the best defense is a good offense, because once the decision has been made to close an airport, there is very little pilots can do. However, if you know what to look for, you can take a proactive approach to protecting your field.
Here are 10 signs of trouble and some suggestions on what to do if you see them:
1. PROPOSED LAND USE OR ZONING CHANGES
If your airport has undeveloped land near it, you should be on guard for this. Most airports and the land near them are in areas zoned light industrial. If the proposal is to change it to “mixed use” or “residential,” look out. If the zoning change goes through, it’s often too late to enact a change.
WHAT TO DO: In most local communities — whether it’s a city, township or county — the law requires a sign be placed on the property advertising that its zoning is up for a change. If you see one of these signs — or a for sale sign — pay attention to it and let others in the aviation community know about it.
You also should routinely scan the public notice section of your local newspaper for announcements of zoning board hearings and ATTEND them if any of the proposals on the agenda could impact the airport. Be prepared to provide logical testimony as to why putting a multifamily housing complex beneath the downwind leg of the pattern, for example, is a bad idea.
Become familiar with AOPA’s “Airport Support Network” program, which is a watch-dog group at local airports. The ASN volunteer keeps tabs on the airport, and if there is a zoning change or development proposal, has a direct line to AOPA to call in the big guns should the situation warrant it. The folks at AOPA have been protecting airports for decades and have resources and experience that most small pilot groups do not. Your airport doesn’t have an ASN volunteer? Find one or become one.
2. RELUCTANCE TO RENEW LEASES
Airports are economic engines — most of the time. But if the airport owner or operator — often referred to as its sponsor — plans to divest itself of the property or the responsibility for the airport, that usually begins by a reduction in support for the businesses there.
Most airport businesses ask for a lease of 20 years or more. If the sponsor insists on a month-to-month lease, that is often a sign that the business is not long for the airport. The sponsor could be making way for a larger, more profitable tenant or it may be the beginning of closing down the airport.
WHAT TO DO: Demand accountability from the sponsor. Usually leases have to be discussed at public meetings. Attend the meetings and, during the public comment period, ask why the leases are not being renewed. Also, show support for the businesses on the field. Use their services when able and make sure the sponsor knows that you do.
3. NO CHAIN OF COMMAND
Few things are more frustrating than trying to get information about an issue at an airport and getting the runaround instead. It’s important to know who is responsible for what at the airport. For example, the airport may fall under the public works department of your city, but an on-site manager is responsible for day-to-day operations.
WHAT TO DO: Make contact with those in leadership positions. It’s important to establish a relationship BEFORE a crisis hits. Even if they are not the right person, if you already have a relationship, they are likely to be willing to help you contact the correct person.
4. NO ADVISORY BOARD
When a sponsor dissolves an airport advisory board, it is often the first step in closing the airport. A lack of a board means a lack of direct contact between the aviation community and the sponsor.
Sometimes a board is dissolved because there is a lack of volunteers willing to serve. Other times the sponsor deems it unnecessary or a nuisance and does away with it.
WHAT TO DO: Petition the sponsor to establish and maintain an advisory board. Volunteer to be on it and encourage other pilots to do the same.
5. NO RESTAURANT
Airport restaurants are often the focal point of the field. A community-friendly eatery attracts the aviation-challenged, as well as the pilot population. A good restaurant draws people to the airport, as well as the surrounding community. With the restaurant gone, the airport loses some of its appeal to visitors.
WHAT TO DO: Encourage the sponsor to actively seek out a restaurant as a tenant or support the restaurant that’s already on the field. This may mean re-negotiating a lease during economic challenges. Be sure to let the sponsor know how much the community values the restaurant — and tell other pilots, as well as your non-pilot friends — to not only support the restaurant, but talk it up to the powers-that-be.
6. EMPTY SPACES
Just as a empty storefront is an indication of a dying town, empty office and hangar space at an airport can indicate decay. The lack of services often keeps pilots away, exacerbating the problem.
WHAT TO DO: Encourage pilots to use the facility and make sure they let the sponsor know they are. Encourage the sponsor to work with business owners to bring them to the airport, as well as help existing businesses remain open in tough times.
7. COMMISSIONING A LAND USE STUDY
A land use study is often a sign the sponsor is considering closing an airport because these studies are often done to determine if an airport is the “best use” for the land.
The study includes an investigation of the airport’s debts and the status of grants if it has accepted state or federal funding. The idea of having to pay back millions of dollars in grants can be enough to table the idea of closing the airport, but sometimes it can stir up opponents, who call for the airport to be closed and the land redeveloped.
WHAT TO DO: Work with the consultant hired to do the study to make sure it is balanced. Attend meetings when the consultant is scheduled to give updates on the study’s progress, so you can identify problems early in the process. Once it’s complete, make sure to get a copy of the study and share it with local aviation groups and other pilots.
8. NO COMMUNITY SUPPORT
If your airport has the reputation as a playground for the rich, look out. Very often non-flying citizens resent that their taxes are being used to “subsidize” this playground and may put pressure on elected officials to close the airport. Others may think that because the airport does not have airline service or a control tower that it is “unsafe” or unnecessary.
WHAT TO DO: Hold an airport appreciation and education day. Partner with local service clubs, car clubs and the like to make it a family-friendly community event. Invite owners to bring their airplanes for display. Show the community how the airport contributes to the local economy, both directly and indirectly, as well as provides other essential services, such as Medevac flights, flights that help local businesses prosper, and more. Don’t forget to include state representatives and the media when you send out invitations to the event.
9. LOTS OF COMPLAINTS
Noise, low-flying aircraft and safety concerns DO get the attention of elected officials. If the issues are ignored, it can aggravate tensions. If enough people complain, the issues became political footballs.
WHAT TO DO: Encourage pilots to “fly friendly.” Hold educational sessions with the airport users and community. Some airports have published diagrams of noise abatement policies, which are often accompanied by a telephone number that can be called to report a complaint.
10. NON-AVIATION USES
The airport property may cover 644 acres, but 120 acres is leased to an auto wrecking yard, or a boat repair facility, or some other non-aviation business.
WHAT TO DO: While these non-aviation uses can help subsidize the airport, the leases need to be carefully worded so that the non-aviation uses do not endanger the airport’s federal grant eligibility, compromise safety or take precedence over the airport’s main mission.