Feds keep little-used airports in business

ByABC News
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.