Feds keep little-used airports in business

• Nearly 2,400 airports have received $10 billion combined in federal dollars while handling fewer than 80 flights a day, according to FAA flight estimates. Most of the flights carry only a few people. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport handles that many flights in a half-hour.

"Do we need them all? No. Some of them are expendable," says Roger Moog, chief aviation planner at the Philadelphia-based Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Travelers foot the bill

The Airport Improvement Program is funded mostly by the nation's airline passengers, who pay a 7.5% sales tax on each ticket and a $3.60 fee for each flight. The money goes into an FAA fund that pays for airport projects and the air-traffic-control system.

A business traveler who flies once a week could pay $2,000 a year in such taxes. Private pilots pay taxes on airplane fuel that cost about $2.87 for a one-hour flight in the average piston-engine plane.

The result: Commercial travelers subsidize many airports they never use, says the Air Transport Association, the main U.S. airline trade group.

"The passengers who fly on airlines and the airlines are paying for projects at airports where we don't fly," association CEO James May says.

Meanwhile, local subsidies help private airplane owners avoid costs that commercial airports routinely charge airlines, such as landing fees and passenger taxes.

Only 2% to 3% of general-aviation airports charge planes to land, says Guzhva, the Embry-Riddle professor.

Why not impose such charges? "Nobody would land here if I charged a fee," says Randall Earnest, manager of Mercer County Airport in West Virginia. "You'd land at an airport that's not charging a fee."

Supporters say non-passenger airports bring growth to small communities and services such as merchandise deliveries and medical-transport helicopters. The larger airports can help ease congestion at crowded commercial hubs by giving private planes a separate landing field.

"They're an economic marketing tool for the business community to show that they're accessible," Oberstar says.

But private planes are used far more by recreational pilots than by business fliers, and usually are single-engine piston aircraft.

FAA records show that 66% of the nation's private airplanes are flown primarily for "personal/recreational" use. An additional 6% are used for flight instruction. Just 16% are flown primarily for business purposes.

Some non-passenger airports, particularly in the Northeast, occupy valuable land that local officials say would be better used for development.

In Allentown, Pa., Queen City Airport, used only by private planes, is about 7 miles from Lehigh Valley International Airport.

"There's no need to have this airport," Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski says of Queen City. Its 200 acres could be sold for $40 million to generate $500 million in development, $6 million a year in taxes for Allentown schools and $4 million for the city, Pawlowski says.

The mayor says his efforts to close Queen City are blocked because the airport has received $13 million in federal funds. The FAA requires airports getting money to remain as airports, usually for 20 years.

"That makes no sense to me," Pawlowski says. "Think about the jobs we could bring in."

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