Feds keep little-used airports in business

Other mayors view a local airports as "a little bit of a status symbol," says Steve McMillin, former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. "The way the demographics of Capitol Hill work out, everybody who's got a little airport wants to make sure their airport has got a little something."

General-aviation airports sit idle for hours each day across the country.

Some are in remote areas, such as H.A. Clark Memorial Field in northern Arizona. The airport has received $12.6 million in federal cash since 1982 and has averaged eight flights a day, FAA estimates show. That's a subsidy of $151 for a flight that usually carries two or three people.

Other little-used general-aviation airports are in suburbs close to similar airfields.

The Midwest National Air Center outside Kansas City has received $14.5 million and handles 33 flights a day. That's 7% of the number it could handle, according to a 2005 report by the Mid-America Regional Council, a planning group.

Express lanes

For private pilots, the airport network is a world of ease and tranquility unknown to airline passengers who endure long trips to airports, costly parking, slow security screening, packed airplanes and delayed flights.

Private fliers often have a choice of nearby airfields that typically offer free parking, have no security screening, no delays and little congestion.

"The beauty of an airport like Centennial is if it gets crowded, you go cross-town to Metro or to Front Range" to land, says Robert Olislagers, executive director of Centennial Airport near Denver. Rocky Mountain Metro and Front Range, two other general-aviation airports, are about 20 miles away.

The ubiquity of airports can be a financial boon for their users.

Airplane owners in Stafford County, Va., got a huge break in April. The county eliminated its tax on airplanes. That was done to match the policy in place at nearby Leesburg Executive and Manassas Regional airports.

The 29 people with small airplanes at the Stafford Regional Airport will see an average tax break of $655 a year, airport manager Ed Wallis says.

The main beneficiaries, Wallis says, will be owners of expensive jets that he hopes to draw by exempting them from taxes of $180,000 a year in the case of a Gulfstream V. That break will lure business, Wallis says.

Stafford Economic Development Authority member David Beiler calls the tax break "a wealthy, powerful special-interest group getting what it wants." Stafford County this year increased the tax rate on automobiles by 25%.

"It's ridiculous that someone with a car that's 10 or 20 years old should be paying more tax than someone with a $1 million airplane," says Stafford Supervisor Joe Brito, who opposed the tax cut.

The measure passed on a 5-2 vote.

Contributing: Brad Heath and Paul Overberg

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