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.