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?