Airport Controversies and Solutions

photo by D Wray

Balancing benefits against liabilities.

As any pilot will tell you, there is nothing like overcoming the force of gravity and leaving the ground whether it is in a small aircraft or a large passenger jet.  Aircraft owners often wish the public could experience the sheer delight and joy they feel each time they take off — soaring over the earth, experiencing incredible vistas and an entirely different perspective on the entire planet.  Instead what they find is controversy on the ground they only can leave behind temporarily when in the air.

The controversies in General Aviation airports such as Boulder, Erie, and Longmont have generated much heat but not much light.  It is time to discuss the issues related to small airports in an honest and candid manner.  Much of the debate includes gross distortions and often gets overly personal.

As I told one good friend of mine who is a pilot and owns his own small plane, “The reality is small (General Aviation) airports serves an elite group of people who use it primarily for their pleasure.”  He agreed.  The truth is these airports mainly serve private citizens who love to fly.  They rarely are there for significant commercial or business purposes, and do not serve any significant community purpose.  In fact, when all factors are objectively considered, most small airports in urban areas are undesirable and have a net negative impact on the community.

In many cases, aircraft owners made substantial investments in their equipment based on their belief the small airports they use would be available to them for many years and would be properly maintained.  Often people actually bought or built homes with hangars so they could taxi out the door and onto a runway — spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

Cities and towns should honor these commitments and do what they can to see their airports are properly maintained and kept available especially to their local users.  That’s only fair.

At the same time, aircraft owners and airport operators need to be cognizant of the deleterious impacts of their activities.  Airport users generate irritating noise.  They become a liability when a minority of pilots fly noisy equipment, get out of flight patterns, or unnecessarily fly over homes and businesses.  Just as pilots love the relative calm they experience while flying and experiencing life as a bird (and sometimes a very fast bird) or having the benefit of getting to a destination quickly, citizens on the ground should not have their own enjoyment of life interrupted by a plane buzzing their home or having to inhale aircraft pollution.

Perhaps the greatest dishonesty in the debate about General Aviation airports involves the role small airports play in local economies.  The truth is small airports are non-factors.  Those who claim significant businesses will relocate to their communities thanks to the airport are deceiving themselves and others.

When it comes to the factors which go into a decision to start a major business in a community or move one to it, rarely does the presence of a small airport factor in.  There are so many more important factors ahead of whether or not a municipality has a small airport that it usually never even comes into play.  Airport supporters are deceitful by giving the impression that business owners will come to a community if it has an attractive General Aviation airport.

Just as great is the disinformation spread by airport supporters who use biased studies to claim how important an economic role their airport plays.  While it is true airports with substantial passenger traffic, such as Denver International Airport, play critical economic roles, small airports do not come close to playing a significant role. The truth is, these studies are commissioned by entities seeking expansions of airports and are done by companies who make a living doing such studies — and they know what their customers want.

For example, in advertisements once taken out by supporters of Erie’s airport, the claim was made it generates $23 million worth of economic activity.  The truth is numbers such as these are grossly inflated — generated by using dubious “multiplier effects” along with unreasonable classifications (such as all part-time employees are considered full-time employees).

A better analysis is to look at the net real estate and sales taxes generated by airports, especially when compared to what they would generate if they were developed commercially and/or residentially.  Suddenly numbers such as $25 million or $100 million shrink 90 to 95% to the thousands.  And if the comparison is made to other uses, airports often represent a net tax loss for the community.

For example, the same study which claimed Erie’s airport had an economic impact of about $23 million calculated the taxes paid by General Aviation visitors totaled less than $75,000.  And sales taxes for all categories totaled under $200,000. Even these numbers were likely to have been inflated. And, as mentioned, if the same property were used for more typical retail and commercial operations, small airports lose money their communities might otherwise get.

Similarly, some airport proponents argue more visitors means more fuel sales but most people don’t know that airports which sell fuel do not send any of those revenues to their local communities.  The reality is small airports generate small amounts of revenue for municipalities.  And expanding small airports will not generate substantial new jobs or tax revenue.

Even worse, the discomfort inflicted by small airports means externalities — such as noise pollution, waking people at all hours of the night, and disturbing a community’s enjoyment of its property — are subsidizing airport activities.  If a Free Market price were put on these factors, the conclusion would be that small airports have a net negative impact on a community (including from an economic development perspective).

The truth is no one should expect small airports ever will be a major factor in economic development.  And there simply isn’t a set of good examples in similarly-sized communities.

The battles between small airports and their neighbors continue in different ways in the three aforementioned communities.  In Boulder, the airport is so restricted and, due to the size of Boulder’s economy, it is barely noticeable to the broader community.  In Longmont, although disturbing airport-related activities have mobilized many citizens, the city’s economy dwarfs whatever contribution the airport might make.  In Erie, due to its small population and tax base, airport supporters have found it easy to win elections to the Board of Trustees and, as a result, have had a disproportionate say in the Town’s decisions for a long time.  In addition, Erie has far less economic activity than Boulder or Longmont so an airport operation of any size looks attractive if the externalities are ignored.  In the long run, though, this is a mistake.

So what should we do?  First, we should honor the commitments made to those who fly and who have invested so much in their aircraft and homes.  This means making sure airports are properly maintained and supporting expenditures.  These costs usually are funded by the Federal Government primarily from Passenger Fees paid by commercial business and leisure travelers, such as everyone taking flights from DIA.

Second, we should get pilots, airport operators, and unhappy community members together to find solutions to problems created by the aircraft and airport operations.  There are many possibilities — ranging from adjustments in flight patterns to agreements for operating aircraft more courteously.  Tougher issues, such as helicopter or skydiving operations, may involve reducing operations or restricting days and hours in some form of compromise which allows the business to continue but minimizes the disruptions they impose on the public.  And in some cases, it makes sense for an airport to say, “No thank you” to certain obnoxious operations. Just because an airport can support operations which are a nuisance for a community does not mean it should allow them.

Third, it makes the most sense to agree to not expand the airports.  The people who have aircraft knew what their local airport could support so there is no basis for any airport expansion.  With the reality that any expansion will have only a minimal economic effect, if any, there is no financial reason to create conditions which will attract more traffic or planes which are noisier.  Just as aircraft owners like to say to their neighbors, “How can you complain about the airport when you knew it was there when you moved in?” airport opponents can retort, “How can you say any expansion is needed when you knew from the start what the airport’s limitations were?”

By maintaining the commitment pilots and aircraft owners reasonably expect, a community meets whatever obligations one could rationally argue it has.  And by doing their best to minimize the disruption and annoyance they cause, pilots and aircraft owners can become better members of the community.  In the long run, this is the win/win path for everyone.


Aaron Harber hosts “The Aaron Harber Show” seen on Channel 3 KCDO-TV (K3 Colorado) on Sundays at 8:00 pm and at www.HarberTV.com.  He once was one of the nation’s most frequent flyers and accumulated almost 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles.  He lives near the Erie Airport.   Send e-mail to Aaron@HarberTV.com.  (C) Copyright 2012 by USA Talk Network, Inc. and Aaron Harber.  All rights reserved.

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