While there’s no doubt the FAA has a lot of control over general aviation, what’s happening closer to home may be — ultimately — more important. Having a City Council or a state government that’s a fan of general aviation can make all the difference in the world.
Just ask Christopher Willenborg, administrator of the aeronautics division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and chairman of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO).
“Having the leadership behind you is so important,” he said. “That’s not always been the case in Massachusetts.”
“The last five years we’ve had the ability to work with and educate the legislators and the executive branch, highlighting the benefits of aviation,” he continued. “That includes taking them out to the airports and actually showing them the value of aviation.”
One recent trip involved taking a group of state leaders to Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport, where Gulfstream recently invested more than $20 million, following on a $3 million investment by the state.
“They had 130 people working at the airport and now they’ve expanded that to 230,” he said. “Those jobs were kept in Massachusetts.”
Economic development like this is a cornerstone of the state’s aeronautics division mission: “Promote aviation throughout the Commonwealth, while providing an efficient, integrated airport system that will enhance airport safety, economic development, and environmental stewardship.”
“When I go around the state speaking at Open Houses or testifying before the legislature, I always start off with the mission,” Willenborg said.
He notes that elected officials, especially, need to hear how important general aviation is to state and local economies.
“They don’t understand aviation,” he said. “There’s a constant educational process going on. With each election, people are moving on and new people are moving in.”
And while it’s important to let them know about the recreational benefits of GA, as well as the important public services pilots provide through Angel Flights and other similar activities, when it comes to selling GA to elected officials, economic development is the key, he counsels.
That’s why the state’s Airport Economic Impact Study is one of the most-used tools in his arsenal.
The study leads with this paragraph: “For the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the sound of commerce and the life of its residents resonate through its commercial service and general aviation airports. Each of these 39 public-use airports, from the largest to the smallest, contributes to the Commonwealth’s economy and to the quality of life enjoyed by Massachusetts businesses, residents, and visitors. As major economic catalysts, Massachusetts’ airports are responsible for generating billions of dollars in economic benefit and supporting thousands of jobs.”
The study found that the state’s public-use airports generate $11.9 billion in total annual economic activity, including $4.9 billion in payroll resulting from 124,369 jobs that can be traced to the aviation industry.
“In addition to these economic benefits, airports in Massachusetts provide a number of health, welfare, and safety benefits, the impacts of which are beyond conventional measurement. Services such as medical transport and evacuation, flight training, law enforcement flights, wildlife management, military exercises, and search and rescue operations, all contribute directly to the quality of life of those who live and work in Massachusetts.”
Of course, economic development is not just a tool used by Massachusetts. In Georgia, it’s also an integral part of the mission statement of the Aviation Programs Office, according to Carol Comer, director of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Division of Intermodal, which oversees all areas not related to highways, including aviation.
“Providing adequate airport facilities statewide to support business and industry and economic development is a critical component of our public service mission,” she said.
Willenborg notes that Massachusetts is a bit different than other states in that 11 of its public use airports — or 1/3 — are privately owned by either individuals or companies. “In most states, most of the airports are publicly owned,” he said.
The private airports are “very successful” and each has its own niche in the state’s transportation system, he added.
All were included in a statewide airport evaluation completed in 2010, the first time such an evaluation had been done since 1989. “A lot had changed over that time,” he said.
The goal of the evaluation is the preservation of the current airport system, he explained.
“It’s very difficult to build a new airport — and if an airport goes away it’s even more difficult to get it back,” he said. “We’re not building new airports in Massachusetts.”
To ensure the state’s 39 public use airports continue to thrive, Massachusetts has developed a statewide airport safety and maintenance program, which funds projects that may not be eligible for the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants. The program provides funds to help airports buy tractors for snow removal, for instance, or fund pavement projects. On top of that, the state has yearly maintenance programs. One year it will repair runway cracking at all 39 airports, while the next year it will devote those resources to runway markings.
Realizing the importance of the state’s airports, the legislature recently approved a new bill authorizing $89 million for capital investments in airports.
Georgia also has a Statewide Aviation System Plan, which serves as a blueprint for development of the state’s airport system, according to Comer, who also serves on the NASAO board as treasurer.
The plan “assigns an individual role and minimum level of service each airport in the state should strive to achieve,” she explained.
“Currently 89% of the state’s 104 publicly owned public use airports meet the minimum recommendations for runway length,” she said. “Two programs — the 1998 Governor’s Regional Airport Enhancement Program and the 2006 Airport Initiative in Rural Georgia (AIRGeorgia) — provided more than $60 million in state funds to extend runways at 55 airports in support of economic development and the recommendations in our statewide aviation system plan. The completion of projects in these special programs now places every Georgian within a 45-minute drive of an airport capable of landing 95% of the corporate aircraft fleet and within a 30-minute drive of an airport capable of landing 85% of the corporate aircraft fleet flying today.”
DELIVERING THE MESSAGE
While economic impact is what “resonates” with the state’s legislators and business leaders, state aviation officials know they need to get their message out to all of the state’s residents — including the very youngest.
In Massachusetts, state aviation officials regularly attend open houses at airports across the state, bringing a booth that includes a flight simulator. That draws in the kids — and while they are trying their hand at flying, the state aviation officials are talking to the parents, getting their support.
“It’s a grassroots effort,” Willenborg said. “And it’s important to get the kids interested in aviation.”
It’s also important to get elected officials and other decision-makers in the community out to the airport.
He suggests that you not only invite them out to see the facility, but take them flying with you as well.
“Where I live the state representative has been up,” he noted. “We now have a new state representatives and it’s on my list to meet with him.”
He notes that most people really “love” seeing the airport. If there’s a new City Council member in your town, he encourages you to invite them out to the airport for a cup of coffee and a quick tour. “Talk about how important aviation is to your community,” he said.
You don’t have to be an airport official to extend that invitation.
“Everyone can be an ambassador for aviation and their airport by helping others understand the importance of an airport to their local community,” Comer said. “Not only does the airport support local businesses and industry, but oftentimes can provide lifesaving emergency medical transport, support public safety and aid in disaster relief efforts.”
Helping local leadership see the importance of general aviation is critical to your home airport’s success, Comer added.
“It makes a tremendous difference in our ability at the state level to facilitate improvements,” she said. “Since airports are primarily locally owned, it takes leadership and support at the local level to make projects happen. No matter how much we may see a need at the state level and be able to assist with state and federal funding, without the local partnership and buy-in we aren’t able to move projects and improvements forward.”