By Bill Dunn
According to data compiled in 2011 for an Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) study, between 1970 and 2007, there was a 67% reduction in the number of privately owned, public use airports. During this same period, the number of publicly owned, public use airports actually increased by 8.8%.
In 2015, the FAA NPIAS showed 19,360 total airports. Of those, 14,212 were private use facilities while only 5,148, or only about 26%, were available for public use.
Usually, when an airport (whether publicly or privately owned) makes it to the chopping block, a number of risk factors have surfaced that were not resolved in a timely manner. Much like an aircraft accident where a chain of events occur leading up to the accident, the same principle can be applied to the loss of an airport.
That’s a lot of numbers to throw against the wall but clearly the airports that are at most risk are those that are privately owned. Privately owned and private use doesn’t just mean a farmer’s strip on his ranch. Indeed, there are any number of rather substantive private use airports around the country. Many can be used with prior permission of the owner. And, there are privately owned airports that are open for public use as well.
So why are privately owned airports being lost at alarming rates? When a privately owned airport is threatened with closure, it’s always about money and the value of the property. The property has much more value when used as something other than an airport. In some cases, the owner, who was passionate about general aviation, has passed away and the heirs do not share his or her passion.
Efforts to preserve and save a privately owned airport for future generations are much more difficult than dealing with issues at a publicly owned airport. Of those airports lost to closure over the past 10 years, nearly all have been privately owned airports.
So what makes them different? First, is the governance of the airport. A single individual cannot close a publicly owned airport. While not impossible, closing a publicly owned airport is a long and drawn out process.
Secondly, nearly all publicly owned airports have accepted federal funds for airport development through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Very few privately owned, public use airports are eligible to receive these funds. Along with the federal funding comes a contractual obligation (grant assurances) by the airport sponsor to the FAA. Since privately owned airports don’t normally have this protection, the FAA has no ability to assist in forcing the airport’s owner to keep the airport open.
While attempting to protect and preserve a privately owned airport threatened with closure may be difficult, it is not impossible. There have been a number of strategies employed by based tenants and businesses to keep their airport open when the owners wanted to sell the property. In several cases, tenants and businesses actually formed a non-profit organization and purchased the airport. In another case in New England, the local township purchased the airport from the private owner and opened the airport to public use.
The owner, family or heirs of a privately owned airport announcing their intent to close and sell the airport property doesn’t necessarily need to mean the end of the airport! Join with other airport users and find a creative solution that is a win-win for all.