Is this an airport?

According to the US Department of Transportation, the US and its territories have more than 19,000 airport, heliports, seaplane bases, and other landing facilities. That’s a lot of aviation. Or at least it’s a lot of potential aviation. Yet, there is a snag in that whopper of a figure we GA enthusiasts should take note of, and put serious thought into.

Of those 19,000 landing facilities, there are a considerable number of municipally owned airports. Many of those airports receive federal funding for improvements like runway extensions, taxiway construction, a new terminal building, or hangars. Far outnumbering those municipally owned airports are private fields, many of which are open to the public.

Here in Florida we have scads of private airports. They seem to be everywhere. Many sport grass runways, while others feature the paved variety. They are the home base for flight schools, maintenance operations, aircraft dealers, pilot shops, social gatherings, and all sorts of aviation centric happenings. But they are privately owned, and that matters. Because the continuation of a private airport’s existence is much less solid than that of the municipal variety.

Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it?

Before we consider the plight of the poor aviator or business owner who runs afoul of their operating agreement at a private field, assuming there is an operating agreement – let’s take a moment to consider the position of the private airport owner. They’ve got a heck of a big maintenance bill each month. Whether it’s lawn mowing, snow removal, or just paying the electric bill – any piece of land big enough to house an airport tends to generate a bill considerably larger than most of us would want to shoulder on our own.

Let me suggest that using a private airport is a bit like using the facilities at a country club. Somebody has to pay for the staff, the pool, the golf course, the air-conditioning, and the antique bar imported from Paris. That someone is you, and everybody else who steps through the door.

The private airport is very similar. Unlike their municipal cousins, they are not typically subsidized by the taxpayers. Any losses the private airport suffers fall directly on the shoulders of the owner. That’s the same owner who has graciously opened the gates to his property and welcomed you in – for a price. Admittedly, the entry fee may not be advertised quite as well as is done at your typical amusement park, but make no mistake – if you’re using someone else’s land to operate a business, learn a skill, recreate with friends, or gather for pretty much any reason – there is a bill to be paid. That’s the reality of it.

Now it is common, and perfectly understandable, that some users of private facilities do not recognize these economics. They are of the belief the owner should pay the costs, since it is, after all, his (or her) land the airport, or golf course, or hockey rink is situated on. And they can make that perspective work…for a while. Sometimes, they can make it work for a long while.

But eventually the size and frequency of the bills overwhelms the owner’s desire to share his bounty with his neighbors and friends. Then something bad happens. The airport turns into a cow pasture, complete with fences and large bovine obstacles to a safe takeoff or landing. The golf course becomes a new housing development, or the hockey rink reverts back to being a frozen pond, albeit now it’s a frozen pond with a fence around it.

The lesson we can glean from all this is simple. If we all shoulder the load together, we all win. If we try to shunt our own responsibilities off on others, we all lose in the end. It’s really that simple.

On the municipal front, our airports are in good shape. Sure, they could use some repaving, or a little tar on a leaking roof, or maybe a whole new building. All in all, the public as a whole supports them financially, however. That spreads the cost across a large number of potential users, and lowers it to a very manageable number. In that sense, financing the airport isn’t much different than covering the costs of the library, the fire department, or the sewage system in your town.

On the private side, things are a bit stickier. But as aviation enthusiasts we have to give our role in the equation some serious thought – because private airports far outnumber municipal airports. At least they do at the moment.

If we were to shirk our responsibilities however, if we were to pretend we can use those fields without picking up our share of the tab, we should be prepared to wake up one day and find our favorite privately owned airport isn’t an airport anymore, and we are not welcome any more.

That would be a sad and undeniably preventable outcome. So let’s take the alternative view and preserve our private options for another generation or two. It’s better than the alternative, don’t you think?


  1. says

    Interesting comments on how municipal airports are treated differently than private ones. Does anyone know where I can find a list of private airports that operate in the US?


  2. Mike Larkin says

    I think their has to be a complete paradigm shift in how smaller airports are operated. Currently the way we use airports today is completely inefficient. May”city” owned airports are to top heavy. Paying far too much for inefficient man power with very limited revenue streams. My feeling is that you have to build a community around these airports. First start with the old lighthouse keeper concept. This offers so\ many new opportunities to the airport at no cost or very little. You would now have an active person on the airport full time. This in turn starts building community. An example would be to offer a piece of land for a home in exchange for caretaker services. Every airport should have the opportunity for condo live-in hangars or homes. This brings people to the airport and generates revenue through use and expansion. We need to get away from these protected city planned projects and work to get more people involved at a reasonable cost. Their are just not enough pilots to foot the bill for all of the current infrastructure. We are running people away from aviation in great numbers due to one major thing, COST!

  3. Michael Clow says

    What a great article. But, with a misconception. “Public” airports – those that are owned and operated by cities, counties, states, or a multi-jurisdictional authority – are not supported by the public as a whole. As the manager of a city-owned airport, I am expected to generate revenues to cover the expenses of the airport just as the owner of a private airport is. Paying for an airport is VERY different from financing the library, fire department, or park, but similar to the sewer system which is paid for by the users. The Grant Assurances we agree to every time we receive some of those funds from the FAA – which are paid for by fees tacked onto commercial airline tickets, not by general taxes – requires the airport to be “as self sufficient as possible.” And, when the city is having financial problems of its own, you will find the governing body may be reluctant to part with those taxpayer funds to cover any shortfall at the airport. So, please, when you taxi up and the counter person says you owe a landing fee, remember it is not to feather some city coffer. It pays for the guy driving the fuel truck or manning the fire equipment, or even to keep the taxi lights burning. Not only private airports are disappearing. Public ones can go away just as fast. Taxes from condos on what used to be an airport go a long way to pay for other municipal services.

    Mike Clow
    Morgantown Municipal Airport

  4. Dennis Thornton says

    Great article. Our private airports are being threatened in many areas of the country by the proliferation of and enchroachment into our safe operating areas by the huge wind powered electric generators reaching up to 450 feet agl at the height of the blade arcs. These same dangers come from cell and other towers. We on private airstrips are offered no protections in most instances by federal, state or local ordinances. As past president of our county plan commission and a member of our board of zoning appeals I was successful in my county in getting identical language put into our county WECS (wind energy conversion system) ordinance based on the state of Indiana law that protects public airports to apply to all private properly permitted airstrips in the county. Without this language our private airstrips could be made totaly unusable. Be on the alert and stay informed in the matters in your local area that might take your ability away to operate safely from your property. It might be a hard fight to protect these rights but get others with the same interests organized and involved and it can be done. If necessary get an attorney who specializes in zoning issues to guide you in developing the proper language to insert into your county ordinance.

  5. Kent Misegades says

    Well put Jamie – there is no free lunch. I’d take this a step further though and propose we make all airfields private. Governments are far less efficient at everything they do, which costs our economy billions (trillions these days). Privatize airfields and the total cost to society will drop and the services they provide will improve. For evidence, compare modern telecommunications to Ma-Bell of the 60s, government schools to private, USPS to Fedex/UPS, etc. Just as the discussion surrounding so-called health care reform, if you think it costs a lot now, just wait until it’s free!

      • Larry Kinder says

        Airports are infrustructure and benifit the public, so they should pay. Disagree? OK Lets privatize all roads and streets. Whenever you pull out of your driveway you will be billed for the road you drive on. Pity the rural drivers, with so few users on their roads their individual cost would be so high most country roads would close.

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