Atlantic City's Bader Airport: Politics as Usual, New Jersey Style

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GUEST EDITORIAL. The senior Senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, showed his true colors as an enemy of general aviation (not to mention a master of political skullduggery) when he recently attached a "rider" to a Senate transportation appropriations bill that would allow Atlantic City's Bader Airport (and Kansas City's Richards-Gebaur) to be closed by releasing those two cities from Federal grant assurance agreements that protect the FAA's investment in publicly owned public use airports. We think pilots everywhere should be outraged, and urge you to contact your congressional representatives about this travesty which could set a disastrous precedent affecting GA airports nationwide.

Aerial photo of Atlantic City's Bader Field"Oh happy, happy, joy, joy!" we thought to ourselves as we saw signatures of famous people in the FAA, N.J. Division of Aeronautics, and the City of Atlantic City on a "memorandum of understanding" about Bader Airport. The long nightmare was ending. The airport would survive for another decade. In return for being allowed to proceed with constructing a baseball stadium on part of the airport property, the City had agreed to provisions which would benefit Bader and its long suffering users. So far, so good.

The City had agreed to maintain the airport and its approaches, return the fire station to airport use and replace ripped up ramp and tie down areas. Further provisions of the agreement would provide funding for airport operations and maintenance from fair market ground rent for the property underlying the stadium. An FBO would be permitted to operate the airport and terms of any FBO lease would not be so horrible that they would go broke in the first month.

In balance it all seemed like a pretty good deal. If nothing else, the large, round shape of the stadium would clearly indicate Bader's location. Old Bridge is co-located with Englishtown drag strip. Andover has its lakes. How bad could a stadium be if the night lighting is controlled?

Don't Celebrate Yet!

Our joy was short lived. Subsequent events surrounding Bader Airport are shaking our faith in democracy.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)As you may have heard, Sen. Frank Lautenberg has weighed in on the "shut it down" side of the debate over Bader Airport, joining forces with Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan, the local politico who lives 200 feet from the Bader property line. We were tipped off when the senior Senator from New Jersey attended a June press conference at Bader. Lautenberg suddenly veered off on a diatribe about how Bader was "unsafe" and should be closed. He went on to describe an arrival he had suffered through and extrapolated his experience in a cabin class twin to those of us who fly small aircraft that are appropriate to Bader's short runways. Lautenberg apparently reasoned that if he couldn't use Bader, nobody else should either.

MAAC responded to his comments in a letter to his to his office:

We are outraged that you have made a policy of using your position and influence to compromise the Federal Aviation Administration's authority over public use airports. We remember all too well that you attempted to close Linden Airport with a rider attached to a last minute budget bill. We are also mindful that you have interfered with AIP funding for the improvement of Princeton Airport. The pilots of New Jersey would be most grateful if you would stop playing politics with our public use airports. As always, we would appreciate the courtesy of a reply.

Lautenbert's Rider

The Senator's reply was predictable. Lautenberg introduced a "rider" attached to a Senate transportation appropriations bill that effectively allowed the FAA to release Atlantic City and Kansas City from Federal grant assurance agreements that protect the FAA's investment in publicly owned public use airports, opening the door for them to shut down Bader and Richards-Gebaur Memorial, respectively.

We started hearing rumors about this rider right after the Bader press conference. Those nasty rumors were corroborated by contacts in Washington who told us that something was going on with the Senate transportation appropriations bill, and that the measure had Subcommittee Chairman Lautenberg's name all over it. We called Lautenberg's Washington staff and were told that there was no such rider. Other aviation advocacy groups were hearing the same rumors and the Senator's staff continued to deny them. One staffer told us "You're giving us ideas. If you don't stop pestering us about this, we will include a rider." Well, either Senator Lautenberg's staff was lying or the Senator acted on his own without the benefit of staff. After the bill mark-up session, Lautenberg's staff acted as if they had been blindsided, too.

The language of the rider as adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee was clear in its intent. It says that the FAA may exempt Atlantic City and Kansas City from any "agreements or memorandums of understanding" involving Bader Airport and Richards-Gebaur.

Perhaps Lautenberg left himself an out with the word "may", but rest assured that pressure will be brought to bear on FAA to ensure that "may" is read as "will". The FAA lives in a political world, too, and FAA personnel know their bread is buttered on Capitol Hill.

What's The Problem With Bader?

Atlantic City's Bader FieldThose who are familiar with Bader realize that the only thing wrong with the airport is Atlantic City's consistent mismanagement of the facility. Yes, there have been accidents, but many of those unfortunate events are directly attributable to pilots using the wrong runway. Proper reporting of wind velocity and direction would alert transient pilots to hazardous conditions. The presence of a fixed base operator to man the Unicom would minimize weather related problems, as would an automated weather station on the field. Airport safety starts with an airport administration that works to ensure that safe operating conditions prevail.

Bader could be a terrific magnet for the tens of thousands of pilots who live within a two hour flight of the resort. The City has been actively discouraging traffic at Bader for the last decade. Despite this harrassment traffic at Bader has increased dramatically since the Friends of Bader got out the word that the airport was open for business. On any given fair weather weekend there are hundreds of aircraft operations and all this activity has all been based on word of mouth. For more than a year Atlantic Flyer has been running ads inviting folks to Bader. A budding Young Eagles program has flown a few dozen local kids and made some fast friends for aviation. Things have been turning around. But Lautenberg wants to kill a goose that could lay golden eggs for Atlantic City if given half a chance.

Bader is located in one of the fastest growing urban regions of the State. Most approaches are over water and away from populated areas. Its location on a peninsula is far enough away from residential development that it poses little hazard and aircraft noise is minimized. And it is within walking distance of many Atlantic City attractions. If Bader closes, however, whatever remains will be a permanent memorial to Senator Lautenberg's shortsightedness. We hope he can be made to see the light.

Implications: Far Beyond Bader Field

The really nasty thing about all this, however, is that the Senator's treachery transcends little Bader. Lautenberg's actions threaten to compromise Federal authority and the entire system of public use airports. With the language and methods that may find their way into law, a very dangerous precedent could be established that threatens the National Plan for Integrated Airport Systems (Fedspeak for public use airports). If Congress approves this, any tin pot local politico with a DC connection can point to Lautenberg's rider as a means to get off the hook to the Feds.

Federal grant assurance agreements protect the FAA's AIP investment in public transportation resources. My tax dollars have been put into Bader Airport in Atlantic City and Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport in Kansas City. I am not a happy taxpayer when I realize that agreements that protect my public investment are worthless.

Do you pay taxes? Are you happy?

What To Do?

As always, the only way for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Express your sentiments on this immediately to your Congressman. You will find their addresses below. Be sure to send a copy of all correspondence to U. S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo who represents Bader's Congressional district. You might also send a copy along to Senator Lautenberg so he knows he has struck a chord.

Also send letter copies to Pilots Against Lautenberg at Box 61, Green Village, NJ 07935 and receive a beautiful (free) bumper sticker put out by PAL.

Encourage the FAA to stand firm on Bader. Your money was invested there in good faith. Those who have no concept of a good faith bargain are attempting to take your airports away from you. The Eastern Region FAA Airports Division has earned our complete respect for defending the situation. It must be very difficult for them to see their work and authority undercut like this.

Because the State of New Jersey is party to the Bader Airport memorandum of understanding, encourage the Division of Aeronautics to ensure that its provisions are carried out. The Division has spent countless man days in making sure that Bader is safe. Division personnel have been quietly and competently policing Bader for the past few years. We applaud the commitment shown by the Division in this. The mere presence of State officials has probably prevented some really bad stuff from happening.

Who To Contact

Following are the mailing addresses and phone numbers for the New Jersey delegation to the House of Representatives. Note that all are Washington DC 20515. Be sure to copy Frank LoBiondo!

  • Hon. Frank LoBiondo, 222 Cannon HOB, 202-225-6572 lobiondo@hr.house.gov

  • Hon. Robert Andrews, 2439 Rayburn HOB 202-225-6501 randrews@hr.house.gov

  • Hon. Bob Franks, 225 Cannon HOB 202-225-5361 franksnj@hr.house.gov

  • Hon. Rodney Frelinghuysen, 228 Cannon HOB 201-225-5034 njeleven@hr.house.gov

  • Hon. Robert Menendez, 405 Cannon HOB 202-225-7919

  • Hon. Frank Pallone, 420 Cannon HOB 202-225-4671

  • Hon. Michael Pappas, 1710 Longworth HOB 202-225-5801

  • Hon. William Pascrell, 1722 Longworth HOB 202-225-5751 bill@pascrell.org

  • Hon. Donald Payne, 2244 Rayburn HOB 202-225-3436

  • Hon. Steve Rothman, 1607 Longworth HOB 202-225-5061

  • Hon. Marge Roukema, 2469 Rayburn HOB 202-225-4465

  • Hon. James Saxton, 324 Cannon HOB 202-225-4765

  • Hon. Chris Smith, 2370 Rayburn HOB 202-225-3765

The New Jersey Senate delegation includes: