Feds keep little-used airports in business

ByThomas Frank, Usa Today
September 17, 2009, 12:15 AM

WILLIAMSBURG, Ky. -- One of the USA's newest airports has a 5,500-foot lighted runway, a Colonial-style terminal with white columns, and hundreds of acres for growth. But Kentucky's Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport lacks one feature: airline passengers.

Built using $11 million in federal money, the airport is used only by private airplanes. Many are piston-engine aircraft owned by residents such as Keith Brashear, the airport board chairman who keeps his two-seat Cessna in the airport hangar. On a typical day, the airport has just two or three flights, manager Jessica Roberts says. Some days, there are none.

The Williamsburg airport is the result of an obscure federal program that raises billions of dollars a year through taxes on every airplane ticket sold in the United States. The taxes can add up to 15% to the cost of a flight — or about $29 to a $200 round-trip ticket.

Federal lawmakers have used some of the money to build and maintain the world's most expansive and expensive network of airports — 2,834 of them nationwide — with no scheduled passenger flights. Known as general-aviation airports, they operate separately from the 139 well-known commercial airports that handle almost all passenger flights.

In the first full accounting of the 28-year-old Airport Improvement Program, USA TODAY found that Congress has directed $15 billion to general-aviation airports, which typically are tucked on country roads and industrial byways.

Members of Congress say the general-aviation airports can attract development and provide services such as air-medical transport.

The lawmakers also regularly use general-aviation airports to get around their districts and states, sometimes in planes with lobbyists. Members of Congress took 2,154 trips on corporate-owned jets from 2001 to 2006, according to a 2006 study by PoliticalMoneyLine, an independent research group.

Critics say the number of subsidized airports with no commercial flights is excessive at a time when larger airports are struggling to deal with delays in air traffic, and that much of the money the general-aviation airports get benefits only a few private pilots.

"Congressmen are spending millions building runways at these little airports. That is just a complete waste of money," says Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Air Group, a regional air carrier. "There is a huge requirement to overhaul infrastructure at major airports."

General-aviation airports handle mostly recreational planes and corporate jets — usually just a few each hour. Half of the airports are within 20 miles of another private-aviation airport, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The Airport Improvement Program gives money to about 2,000 airports each year for projects such as runway repairs and noise mitigation. The money goes to all types of airports — general-aviation and commercial — that apply to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for grants.

Lawmakers have expanded annual funding by 10 times since 1982, as increasing air travel brought in more money in ticket taxes. They also have steered growing sums to general-aviation airports by rewriting federal law.

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.

Other findings:

•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."

• 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."

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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