The funding for such airports soared from $470 million in 1999 to $1 billion in 2007 — even as private flying declined by 19% during that period. (Even so, the USA has 231,000 private airplanes — more than twice as many as every other country in the world combined, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.) This year, the small airports are receiving a record $1.2 billion.
The escalating funding came as commercial hubs faced the worst airline delays ever. A multibillion-dollar plan to avert gridlock in the skies has been delayed because the U.S. government has spent too little money building a new system to guide commercial flights, former Federal Aviation administrator Marion Blakey says.
The little-used airports are often in residential areas, drawing fire from neighbors who say they create noise and pollution while benefiting a small group of airplane owners.
In Carroll County, Md., 35 miles northwest of Baltimore, 1,800 people have signed petitions opposing a proposed longer runway at the Carroll County Regional Airport that would be designed to handle larger private planes.
Tad Rau, whose house is a quarter-mile from the airport next to a farm, blames the federal program, which would pay for $70 million of the $74 million runway.
"That's a major reason why the county commissioners want to do this — they really don't have to fund any of the cost," Rau says.
•General-aviation airports are vastly underused. A USA TODAY analysis of aviation plans in seven states indicates that more than half of their 312 general-aviation airports operate at less than 10% capacity. Nearly 90% operate at less than one-third of their capacity, well below the rates of larger airports that serve commercial passengers.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, for example, operates at 79% of capacity. Norfolk International, a small passenger airport in Virginia, is at 64%. The seven states — Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana and Virginia — were analyzed because they keep data on airport capacity.
• Three-quarters of general-aviation airports lose money every year and stay solvent only with cash from local taxpayers, says Vitaly Guzhva, a finance professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
"An awful lot of them are in very deep financial trouble," airport consultant David Plavin says.
The city of Benson, Ariz., population 5,000, gave its airport $82,000 last year to pay 77% of the operating costs.
The airport, built in the 1990s using $8 million in federal money, sees just 21 planes a day, FAA records show. That's half the number that city consultant Coffman Associates had projected in 1990.
"There probably will always be a little bit of support from the city," Benson City Manager Glenn Nichols says.
The airport plans to nearly double the length of its runway — using millions of dollars from the federal government — so it can handle small jets that Coffman said would use a longer runway.
• The U.S. government pays such a large share of capital costs at general-aviation airports — 95% — that a lawmaker who co-wrote the 2003 law setting that rate now says it's "too high."
"It looks like a 100% grant," says Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who has proposed a 90% federal share.
"It's free money," says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It encourages pie-in-the-sky projects."