New FAA Hangar Policy: Common Sense

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Last week the FAA issued its official policy as to what may be stored in a hangar on an airport that receives federal AIP money—and and the contents look positive for aircraft owners and homebuilders.

Over the years one of the issues that has plagued aircraft owners and airport sponsors alike is trying to figure out what can be stored in an aircraft hangar that’s on an airport that receives federal grant money through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). That money comes with strings, the big one is that the airport must be used for aeronautical purposes—and that applies to what is stored in hangars on that airport. I’ve seen local rules that vary from being silent as what can go into a hangar to incredibly restrictive.

Last week the FAA issued its official policy as to what may be stored in a hangar that’s on an airport that receives federal AIP money—and I think the folks in the FAA’s Airport Compliance Division and Office of Airport Compliance did a good job in applying common sense to the subject.

A Little Background

When an airport sponsor accepts grants under the federal Airport Improvement Program, it signs a contract agreeing to use the funds for the purpose they were granted and to operate its airport so that it grants equal access to all aeronautical activities. The purpose is to have as many airports as possible to serve the National Airspace System and for the users of the airports to be able to expect consistent treatment, no matter what they are flying; everywhere they go in the country. When an airport sponsor signs the contract for AIP money, that contract includes a number of specific Grant Assurances, so a pilot flying a helicopter, glider, airplane or balloon or a skydiver descending under canopy is promised equal access to its airport by the airport sponsor. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s been reasonably successful in preventing scattergun local airport regulations that would otherwise ban some aeronautical users based on local whims, power-brokers or prejudices.

One of the guarantees an airport sponsor makes, in writing, in return for federal AIP funds is to use airport property only for aviation-related purposes unless the FAA specifically approves otherwise. That means a city that owns an airport and accepts federal grants cannot, for example, put a soccer field on part of its airport unless it gets FAA approval.

The airplane can easily be moved in and out of the hangar so the items stored in the hangar do not interfere with the aeronautical purpose of the hangar itself.

The aviation-related purposes requirement also applies to hangars on an airport that has received federal funding, no matter who owns the hangars. Over the years that requirement has lead to wildly inconsistent local rules about what can be stored in a hangar. I’ve seen airport managers who were ostensibly so frightened about losing federal funding that they refused to allow anything in a hangar except an airplane—no spare cans of oil, no windshield-washing materials, nothing. Other managers refused to allow carpet, a refrigerator or a sofa—despite the widely recognized needs of pilots to have a comfortable place from which to gaze on their airplanes. I, of course, will refrain from offering the comment that some airport manager job descriptions appear to include a requirement to not know whether Amelia Earhart disappeared on an around-the-world flight or went down with the Titanic. Such a sentiment would be beneath me.

The FAA has tried to provide guidance into “aeronautical-related purposes” when it comes to what can live in a hangar. Until now, its guidelines didn’t always seem to be well considered. For example, the FAA’s proposed policy on airport hangar use issued in July 2014 didn’t consider an amateur-built (homebuilt) airplane to have reached the rarified height of “aeronautically-related” until it was in final assembly. Kit- or plans-built aircraft had to be largely completed elsewhere. Not surprisingly, that proposed policy resulted in more than 2,400 comments from pilots, airport users and aviation alphabet groups. Happily, the FAA listened.

A New Policy is Revealed

On June 9, 2016, the FAA issued its Final Policy on the non-Aeronautical Use of Airport Hangars. I think the combination of thoughtful comments on the proposed policy and the willingness to listen on the part of the FAA’s Office of Airport Compliance and Airport Compliance Division has resulted in a common sense document. The Policy will become effective on July 1, 2017.

As I went through the Final Policy, it appeared to me that the FAA’s consistent bottom line was that so long as the primary purpose of the hangar is for parking an operational airplane, the storage of other items has no effect on the aeronautical utility of the hangar. That makes good sense, in my opinion.

The Final Policy applies to all hangars on the property of an airport that has received federal grants, whether those hangars are owned by individuals and only subject to a land lease with the airport or owned by the airport and leased to individuals. Land on an airport must be used for aeronautical purposes, so any hangars constructed on that land must be used for aeronautical purposes and comply with the FAA’s new Final Policy.

Under the new FAA Policy, homebuilt aircraft can go through the entire construction process in a hangar, not just final assembly.

The Final Policy specifically states, “Non-commercial construction of amateur-built or kit-built aircraft is considered an aeronautical activity.” I don’t think the FAA could be more clear and I applaud the stance it took. I note that the FAA also recognized that progress by some homebuilder on their projects is so slow that it appears to be nonexistent to an observer. Accordingly, the Final Policy allows airport sponsors to incorporate construction progress targets in a hangar lease. The goal is to assure that the hangar is used for storage of an operational aircraft within a reasonable time.

In keeping with the requirement that a hangar be used for aeronautical purposes, the Policy says that a sponsor can prohibit the indefinite storage of nonoperational aircraft. We’ve all seen the situation where an owner has stopped flying his or her aircraft and it sits forlorn in its hangar for years—never seeing the sun, much less an annual inspection. In some cases the owner does work on the airplane from time to time, but it never becomes airworthy. The Policy allows sponsors to evict such aircraft so as to provide hangar space for operational aircraft. The FAA’s Final Policy recognized that some airports have a waiting list for hangar space. In my opinion, it’s not fair for someone’s operational airplane to be sitting out on a tie down in a hailstorm when the owner of the flat-tired, five-years-out-of-annual Skylane in hangar 22 hasn’t deigned to visit his pride and joy since the George W. Bush Administration.

The Final Policy says that so long as the hangar is used primarily for aeronautical purposes, non-aeronautical items may be stored in the hangar if the items do not interfere with the aeronautical use of the hangar. I’ve seen several hangars with an active airplane parked front and center as well as bare fuselages and wings of someday-to-be restored airplanes hanging in the rafters. Under the Final Policy, this appears to be perfectly acceptable and probably means saving some antique and classic airplanes.

We’ve all seen hangars where there is an airplane somewhere underneath massive stacks of storage boxes—where getting the airplane out would require excavating with explosives and a front-end loader. Besides not complying with the Policy, they are a fire hazard. Hangar fires, while rare, are to be taken seriously. Aluminum burns with vigor. The Policy gives airport sponsors additional ammunition to compel such hoarders to clean out their hangars or move out.

Airport sponsors have always been able to impose rules for fire safety—the Final Policy does not change that principle. However, the rules have to be reasonable. I’ve seen too many airport bureaucrats attempt to ban storage of commercially purchased fuel containers that otherwise meet fuel storage requirements and are used safely in millions of garages and thousands of hangars across the country. After all, the airplane contains far more fuel in its tanks than is in a half-dozen fuel containers and presents the same risk of fire.

Furniture

If you can't have furniture in your hangar, how can you have a birthday party for your airplane?

In FAQs the FAA put out in conjunction with its Final Policy, it makes clear that it’s perfectly fine to have furniture and a TV in the hangar—so long as they don’t impede the movement of the aircraft in and out. That's common sense, in my opinion. Besides, a hangar without furniture and a refrigerator somehow just isn’t natural.

A hangar cannot be used as a residence—hangar homes cannot be on an airport that receives federal funding (they can, however, be on adjacent land with connecting taxiways). However, the FAA recognizes that there is sometimes a need for a crew rest facility in a hangar; it just cannot be a residence.

I like what I have seen in the Final Policy, including some little items that will give hangar tenants ammunition against foolish airport regulations such as prohibiting parking one’s car in one’s hangar while out flying. The FAA specifically addresses that issue. I’m looking forward to showing that to the airport manager who enacted such a ban at his fiefdom, er, airport. I’m also going to tell him that Amelia Earhart disappeared on an around-the-world flight attempt. He’ll be stunned.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney, a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 and 2.