Everything changes

It doesn’t take long to realize that everything around us changes through the years. By the time we’re in high school we notice that friends have moved away even as new friends magically arrive in town. The familiar old drug store becomes a realtor’s office, then might be torn down to make way for a new medical facility in the heart of town. So it goes.

The airport is no different than anyplace else, really.

What was once a big flat field where airplanes simply landed into the wind is transformed into a more modern facility with an established runway. That runway might have started out as grass or dirt, but somewhere along the way it may have been paved. Maybe a second runway was added, and in some places a third popped up.

This all adds up to a farmer’s field transforming into an airport of considerable size over a period of years. Often some of the construction that made that growth possible came from the federal government.

That’s a double-edged sword, frankly. Because while accepting federal funds can allow even a small municipality to improve its airport considerably while only contributing a meager percentage of the total cost of construction, accepting that federal money obligates the airport owner to accept certain conditions that pertain to the use and operation of the field.

Imagine that your airport has been expanded over the years, or a runway has been repaved, or hangars have been built, or a weather station has been installed using federal dollars. Those improvements to the airport, as good as they may be, take your city out of the driver’s seat when it comes time to make decisions about how the airport will operate. Should a new business come to town with the intention of opening up shop and conducting operations in the air, you no longer have the ability to unilaterally give a thumbs up or down on that operation. The FAA is now a part of the conversation, and the FAA deems that all public use airports that have accepted federal funds make the field available to all comers. Specifically, the FAA includes in various documents language like this: “Airport sponsors who accept federal funding are obligated to make the aircraft facility available to all aeronautical activities…”

I’ve never been a big fan of the word “obligated,” but there it is, removing pretty much all doubt from the situation.

So let’s say you’ve got a quaint little airport that you love. Somewhere along the line your city accepted federal dollars to help resurface a runway, extend a taxiway, and put in a new fuel farm. Well then, as you can plainly see in the language above, you’re obligated to let that new helicopter operator set up shop on your field, or welcome the glider operator from out west to establish a satellite base of operation, or give a big thumbs up to the powered parachute manufacturer that wants to build a factory on your field and start high intensity training from your runway.

Then again, maybe you’re not as obligated as the documentation might suggest.

While accepting federal dollars for airport construction and improvements does open the door to accepting all aeronautical operations on your field, that’s not a slam dunk by any means. There is one issue that rises above federal funding and extends to all aeronautical activities on any field, whether federally funded or not. That issue is safety, and if safety is job number one in everything you do, there may be no more important time for your municipality to take a serious look at how safe your airport is, or how safe it will be in the future, than when the idea of adding a new type of operation to the mix pops up.

There are certainly airports that can handle multiple types of operations. But that doesn’t mean all operations can be safely conducted simultaneously at all airports. Consider the mix of helicopter and fixed wing traffic at an airport with a single runway, an operating control tower, and no significant obstructions for miles in any direction. That mix would be no problem. But add a second runway, and make it intersect with the first, then take away the control tower and the whole situation has changed. Has safety been degraded? Maybe. That has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with the knowledge that real people will be impacted by the ultimate decision.

Fortunately, no airport is alone in this decision-making process. You can always ask for an even bigger return on investment for that federal funding by contacting your local FSDO to ask for a safety evaluation. The feds will schedule you into their work load, make an evaluation about the status of your facility, the operations currently being conducted, and provide insight and advice about whether that new operation can be included in your traffic pattern without negatively impacting safety.

The process isn’t quick, but it shouldn’t be, either. There is no more important topic in aviation than safety. To get in front of that and discuss the issue seriously, with a real commitment to serving the airport users and tenants as well as you possibly can, is imperative to the ultimate safety of the field and those who use it.


  1. Randy Coller says

    The government has grabbed way too much power. They take our money (fuel & head taxes) then attach stirngs without any rule making process. Be alert. The FAA is now inspecting hangars on airports. Tell me what does it hurt if you have a motorcycle or boat stored under the wing of your airplane? Well the FAA won’t allow it. It’s considered a non-aeronautical activity. This FAA camel is poking it’s nose in your tent (hangar) and telling you what you can and cannot do.

    Furthermore, what once were advisory documents (Advisory Circulars) have now become MANDATORY standards for airports after they accept that “federal” (say your) money. The grant covenants signed by the airport contain a clause that make many of the ACs a mandatory standard, not just advisory any more.

  2. Steve D says

    How about the plight of private airport owners who have received federal funding and are trying to sell their property to another private individual?!

    These guys stand to lose everything they’ve invested over the years. The CFRs, which in my mind are geared solely towards municipally owned airports, won’t allow them to retain any proceeds from the sale!

  3. Gene Conrad says

    Many of our local airports were once military facilities that were transferred to municipalities through land conveyances known as AP-4 agreements following WWII. These agreements were the precursor to the Grant Assurances as we know it today. Although many of these expire after a specified term, (usually 20-30 years) Grant Assurances involving exclusive rights, land use, and economic nondiscrimination have no expiration period. You are “obligated” when you accept FDOT/State funds too.
    Once you receive grant funds from either the FAA or FDOT/State the airport is obligated to the Grant Assurances, but not necessarily obligated to accept all aviation activity in any manner that it arrives. Airports can manage operations more than one would think. Through the use of Minimum Standards, Rules and Regulations and Airport Master Planning, an Airport Sponsor can ensure the preservation of quality aeronautical service providers, while protecting airport tenants and businesses. Further, if an airport wants to welcome a certain aviation activity to their airport that may present unique challenges you can handle the new operations through communication with your tenant base and the new entrant to develop specific procedures for the operation. Once the new procedures are set and the information is clearly communicated anything is possible. Let’s not forget that safety on the ground is equally as important as safety in the air. Signage, pavement markings and pavement conditions all work against a safe airport operation if these items aren’t maintained. Airports are capital intensive animals and without the support from the FAA and the States, distributing the user fees from the folks using the aviation system, there would be far less airports for all of us to enjoy.

    • says

      So true on the “retired” former WW II bases which many municipalities and counties, primarily in the mid-west, obtained, but many hardly ever justified or utilized. And this is where the problem $$ began; to much airport (supply) for very little demand. As you also eluded to; HUGE capital intensive real estate for ALL government agencies to finance – again; lack of volume aviation consumers?
      The deal keeping an airport as an airport, the last time I checked is; every time an improvement $$ is made (infrastructure), the airports “life” is guaranteed an additional twenty years forward from that date?

    • says

      Thank you for a collection of excellent insights, Gene. Your experience as a proactive and successful airport director, overseeing a facility that conducts a wide assortment of varied aeronautical activities makes your input on this particular topic absolutely priceless. Much appreciated.

      • says

        Jamie; Only problem I have with “Gene’s” reply – seems like he’s “justifying” his job. Might ask him why so many airports aren’t “breaking even”, and why are so many going into the fuel business; a major source of the FBO’s income – debit shortfall for the airport? I suggest you ask some major FBO operators and NATA if this isn’t a threat to the FBO industry.

        • Gene Conrad says

          You are correct about the 20 years. Also, I appreciate your comments, but I am not trying to justify my job. My intent was to shed light on the topic from the airports side and “encourage” aviation development at airports. Your comments in regards to airport supply vs. demand are correct and we are breaking even here at LAL.

  4. John Wesley says

    Again Jamie, you missed the real problem, factories and houses, shopping centers and schools where airports used to be. Grass growing in the cracks in the runways and taxiways, self serv pumps closed because they didnt make any money, Nimby’s complaining and crying about the noise from the airport, that had been there for years before they located nearby. Take off your rose colored glasses and address some of the real problems in GA today.

    • says

      John; Love your honesty and assessment of Jamie’s plight.

      Frankly, I think Jamie’s a nice, well meaning, but rather naive, and an idealistic fellow.
      However, the “realist” sees the glass half as half EMPTY when it is and half FULL when it is. But most of all of GA’s (recreational) problems are simply rooted in the law of “supply and demand” – very little demand, and much over supply. Just take a look at a few unjustified airports and FBO’s/flight schools – would anyone like me to name a few?

      The “industry” isn’t going to be keep alive by “preaching” the intangible (religion) of flying, but rather finding PAYING (dirty word?) customers/consumers for aviation products and services!
      As idealistic and noble a cause “hyping” aviation to anyone one who’ll listen is, as if your promoting Scientology or Jehovah Witness, it’s fruitless. The last time I looked, it’s MONEY that makes any “machine” here (USA) work – pass the plate please?

      • Brett S says

        My question would be, how do you intend to find those additional paying customers without a little bit of “preaching”? Certainly the benefits of aviation can be extended beyond warm and fuzzy exaltation about the “joy of flight”, to more concrete issues like travel efficiency, etc. But, whatever benefit you focus on, it must be shared. If your point of view is that nothing can be done, then I prefer Jamie’s naivete. But, if you do have some ideas that you think are more concrete, please share them so we can benefit from your ideas.

        • says

          Brett, Frankly, I’m all about BUSINESS, so here’s my take, accept/like it – your call!
          The BEST present – future aviation customer/consumer is the one who’s has the greatest NEED – not “want”. As you mentioned, the “utility” benefit, which is “undersold”, weather it be a recreational pilot or business user.
          Although “preaching” to a middle/high school audience MAY bring future aviation “buyers” at a later date, doesn’t it make more cent$ to promote the ONES who will buy sooner than later? Income (now) is ANY business’s problem – can’t pay yesterday’s bills with tomorrows (maybe?) income.
          The “industry” needs to accurately INDENTFY the immediate buyers and SELL them on the UTILITY benefits – the ’emotional” (fun) aspect is part of the intangible benefit – but NOT the primary motivation by the purchaser – does that make any cent$/sense to you?
          Yes, I’ll agree , we need to “prime” future buyers as well, just not at the top of the priority list.

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