The Pilot's Lounge #90: State Aeronautics Commissions -- Fiddling While Airports Disappear?

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It'd be nice if the people in charge of airports at the state level helped fight airport closures, given the importance of airports to a state's economy. But AVweb's Rick Durden just hasn't seen it happen and, in fact, has seen such commissions act in ways that will cause even more closures.

The Pilot's Lounge

As is the case with most of us here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, my involvement with state aeronautics commissions had, for years, been limited to paying a small annual fee and receiving a nice book that gave information on all of the public-use airports in the state, as well as an aeronautical chart that showed the entire state. I found the aeronautical chart and the airport guide to be very handy and was glad to get them. When the Internet age got rolling, the Aeronautics Commission created a good Web site that allowed me to get airport information, statistics and quick access to the State Aeronautics Code.

Positive Efforts

As I learned more, I came to find out that, in many states, employees of the aeronautics commission inspected all of the public-use airports for compliance with safety rules. I learned that the states did this because the FAA doesn't exert total regulation of airports. There is an overlap between what the FAA regulates and what was left to the state or localities to regulate. In time, I met state airport inspectors and was impressed by how determined they seemed to be to help smaller airports comply with the safety regulations on runway markings and obstruction clearances at a price the airports could afford.

As time passed, I discovered that most state aeronautics commissions were also involved in the decision as to where to funnel the state, and sometimes federal, money that was available for airport improvements. It made pretty good sense: The state agency that inspects the airports might just know which ones were more in need of improvements.

The Picture Darkens

Then I started getting involved with one of the worst threats to General Aviation in this country -- the steady loss of airports -- and my rosy vision of state aeronautics commissions became noticeably less rosy.

It started as I watched some of the higher-profile airport-closing fights take place. In Florida, Illinois and California I looked for reports of aggressive action by the various state aeronautics commissions to fight closures. I looked for reports that the states had filed suit against the cities that owned the threatened airports, demanding that they be kept open; that the aeronautics commissions were working with the legislatures of their respective states to pass legislation making it difficult to shut down an airport; and that the commissions encouraged localities and states to buy threatened, privately-owned, public-use airports so as to prevent their closing. I looked for such reports in vain. If any actions were taking place, it sure wasn't getting much press.

I looked for simple things from aeronautics commissions -- at least some sort of public pronouncement on commission Web sites -- that public-use airports, no matter how small, were a vital part of our nation's transportation system. I hoped to see something along the line that the grass runway on the edge of the small town was just as important to that town's economic vitality as each residential street, because the runway and the street both connected the citizenry to the rest of our nation. Again I looked in vain. I saw AOPA advertisements to that effect, but nothing from the very bureaucracies charged with supporting aviation in each state. I hope there are such statements being made. I hope I just missed them.

I looked unsuccessfully for state aeronautics commissions that had gone to their legislators and sought passage of a preamble to a State Aeronautics Code that declared airports to be vital state resources that must be protected. Where I saw anything, it was so weasel-worded as to not exist. I sought ringing pronouncements. I saw prevarication.

User Unfriendly

It got worse. From what evidence I've seen published, an airport closes every week in this country. There are a lot of causes for the continued loss of airports, but one of them is the fact that some airport administrations create such a user-unfriendly environment -- through onerous, unnecessary and often illegal local rules. Many of the pilots who would otherwise have joined in the fight to save their airport had gotten frustrated with their treatment over the years and either moved to another airport or quit flying. Then, when the closure fight came, there were fewer pilots to fight for the airport. Worse, some who had left were still so angry over their treatment that they worked against the airport, somehow reasoning that they were getting back at the airport managers who had created the stupid rules that had driven them away in the first place. What makes this scenario even more distressing is that an alert state aeronautics commission could have stepped in earlier and stopped the improper actions by the airport managers and possibly saved the airport.

Every user driven from an airport by a stupid rule or officious administrator is one less person to bring in revenue for that airport or to fight to support it. Every time a state aeronautics commission refuses to admonish an airport administrator who has stepped out of line, we saw off a little piece of another airport.

A case in point: Holland, Mich., owns Tulip City Airport. The local voters passed an oddball ordinance that prohibits spending tax money on the airport despite the fact that the airport generates millions in revenues for the town each year through the business it brings in. As of that moment it was obvious the community did not support its airport. That should have provided a clear warning to those who administer the airport that it needs all the happy tenants and users it can get. Somehow they don't seem to understand that basic concept. They have used that ordinance to justify harsh and illegal local rules, chasing away tenants and potential tenants.

An amazingly stupid regulation at the Tulip City Airport has to do with aircraft owners fueling their own airplanes from their own fuel supply. The FAA has made it clear that self-fueling cannot be prohibited or rules established that make it too onerous. That guideline is included in Advisory Circular AC 150/5190-5 (this is a 200 Kb Adobe PDF document), which outlines what rules an airport that accepts federal funds can pass and what it can't. The FAA recognizes that self-fueling is a way for aircraft owners to save a little money. Smart airports recognize that if they make it safe and easy for users to self-fuel, more airplanes will base there; therefore, more maintenance and parts business goes to the local FBOs and the airport gets the fuel flowage-fee it charges for all fuel dispensed on the airport, no matter by whom. While the FBO may not get that particular fuel sale, the fact that a policy brings more airplanes to the airport means that the FBO gets more business overall, and is ahead of the game compared to if airplanes are based elsewhere.

Onerous Regulation

Holland, Mich., doesn't get it. Anyone desiring to self-fuel at Tulip City Airport -- even the guy putting auto fuel in his Aeronca Champ out of five-gallon containers (which are legal to be carried in a car or pickup) -- must buy a $5 million insurance policy to cover any falls around the fuel cans or tank. (The FBO only has to carry $1 million for slip-and-fall accidents around its several-thousand-gallon fuel tanks). Then, once the Champ owner (or bizjet owner) has bought that policy -- if she can get it -- she has to provide evidence that she can put up $1 million cash to cover any accident that might happen and that is not covered by insurance. The City will check assets and confirm ability to pay. I'm not kidding about this regulation. I've fought with the City of Holland about it and it is unwilling to change.

Does it sound like there are a few folks administering that airport who don't want business at their airport, or pilots to support it when the community threatens to close it? That or someone is a few instruments short of a panel.

How much maintenance and parts business has the airport administration cost the local FBO by chasing away just one company that owned a bizjet and wanted to self-fuel? Yes, I know that it's at least one. I don't know, but I can't help but wonder if the FBO manager isn't considering mayhem because the airport administration has cost him thousands in maintenance revenue that is going to someone else.

What does that have to do with a state aeronautics commission?

Glad you asked.

Where the Buck Stops

The State Aeronautics Commission controls the flow of state money to an airport and can cut it off or demand that it be repaid if the airport violates operating regulations for airports. (It acts as an initial arbiter on disagreements between airports and users, although its decisions can be appealed to the FAA.) How do you think the State Aeronautics Commission ruled when a complaint was made about the self-fueling regulations at Tulip City Airport?

Surprise, surprise. The person assigned to airport issues said those rules were perfectly fine, no problem with them at all.

I do not know what the politics were that influenced that decision. I don't know why the Aeronautics Commission in our state routinely rules against airport users and in favor of airport administrators. (I've been unable to find a decision it has made in favor of an airport user, but I'm still looking.) Maybe it's because the state bureaucrats and airport administrators all go to the same conventions and have to look at each other when they go for drinks. Maybe because, in the short run, treating the users shabbily is more politically savvy for bureaucrats trying to protect their jobs. But when it comes down to protecting airports, it's the wrong thing to do. I'm curious as to how many people are not basing their airplanes at Tulip City Airport because of that particular rule. How much maintenance is the FBO losing? How many preheats won't be sold each winter? How much rent isn't being paid to the city? How much are the local restaurants not making because fewer airplanes are based at the nearby airport?

What really matters is whether the administration will manage to alienate enough users so that when that community -- which has already shown its dislike of the airport at the voting booth -- goes to shut down the airport, there will be only lackluster resistance to its closure.

With friends like the State Aeronautics Commission, aviators at the Tulip City Airport don't need enemies.

Clueless

A few years ago I attended my first State Aeronautics Commission meeting. I was seeking an answer to a question regarding an area in which the state Aeronautics Code was silent. To my frustration, the Commission members simply ignored the question, so I sat down and watched the rest of the meeting.

I was utterly amazed by what came next. One at a time, a progression of airport managers approached the microphone and, hat figuratively in hand, praised the Commission members for their foresight and fortitude in having the wonderful good sense to channel state and federal money to each manager's airport for improvements. I had never seen an audience with royalty or the Pope until then. I kept waiting for each supplicant to get on his knees, crawl to the Commissioners and kiss their rings. The Commissioners seemed to really like this part of the meeting, acting more alive than at any other time. It didn't make any sense to me that in a state the size of Michigan an airport manager on a tight budget would spend the money and time to travel several hundred miles to the state capital for the sole reason of thanking the Commissioners for doing the very job they were tasked to perform. Wouldn't a nice thank-you note suffice? Is this how decisions are made as to which airports get money? By how well the airport manager grovels before the assembled dukes and earls of the Commission? It's no wonder the Commission gives short shrift to those who complain about onerous rules at airports and fails to go to bat for airports that are threatened with closure. That sort of thing is hard work and no one bows and scrapes before them in the process.

Planning Versus Fighting

I will be the first to give credit where it is due. The bureaucrats employed at the Aeronautics Commission do a good job encouraging communities to zone the land around airports for appropriate use. They also work with the National Association of State Aviation Officials and its excellent efforts on land use planning around airports. It is an essential task, especially because it's being done at both the state and federal level. It's absolutely great as far as it goes. The problem is that it is only the first 5 or 10% of the fight to save airports.

Planning is fun. You draw pretty lines and diagrams on maps showing how the land around the airport should be zoned so as to prevent residential development. The bureaucrats draw their maps and meet with local zoning officials and say encouraging things. Then they come back to the office and put the checks in the boxes of their forms to show they planned and encouraged. They are patted on the head at their next performance review because that's how they are evaluated -- for only doing 10% of the needed work. They plan and they encourage.

And they are ignored.

Let's be realistic: Zoning boards are owned by the developers and aren't going to do squat to prevent residential development around airports if the developers covet the land. As an example, take a look at the Lowell (Mich.) Airport. Developers overpowered planners and built houses to the threshold of two of the runways. Far stronger weapons are needed to keep our airports alive. The state bureaucrats evaluate themselves by making sure they have filled out the proper forms and met with the proper officials, not by how many airport closures have been averted or new airports created. They seem to ignore the fact that the outcome of their paper pushing and meeting is horribly ineffective. Even if the zoning ordinances are passed, the aeronautics bureaucrats don't monitor what's going on and so they don't stop the variances from being granted that allow the developers to ring airports with houses, causing noise complaints that encourage politicians to run for election on platforms calling for closing the local airport.

When the fecal material hits the rotating blades, when the fight between the airport and the surrounding landowners erupts, my experience is that the crowd at Aeronautics proceeds to hide their collective heads in the sand. They don't fight. They don't go storming to the lawyer at the State Attorney General's office who is assigned to airport issues, provide him or her with evidence and demand that the state sue to keep the airport open or protect it from encroachment or obstructions. That would require a lot of work. And because it might not be successful, it would mean that the closure of the airport might just rub off on them and their performance review.

A Second Example

I wrote a while back about a residential airport that faced closure due to neighbors who let trees grow up at the threshold of the sole runway. The trees meant that the runway threshold would eventually be displaced so far that the runway would not meet minimum length requirements. Most of the owners of the airport stepped up and put their own money on the line to sue the neighbors after years of negotiations had been unsuccessful. They made use of an exceptionally good section of the State of Michigan's Aeronautics Code, Chapter VIII. It establishes an "approach protection area" off of the end of each runway. It provides a sloping glidepath to the runway on a 20:1 ratio. It is illegal for a landowner next to an airport to allow anything to stick up into that approach protection area. Period. No ifs, ands or buts. The law goes on to say that anything that projects into the approach protection area is an aeronautical hazard that places the lives of the traveling public at risk and that the hazard is, by definition in the statute, a public nuisance. The Code is very strongly worded in that section: It requires that nuisance law be used to abate the public nuisance. As I said, it's a good law for airports.

The lawsuit was successful. The residential airport received an Order from the court requiring that the neighbors trim the trees to a point below the approach protection area and keep them trimmed. The cost was to be borne by the neighbors as the law placed the obligation on them to keep their trees out of the approach protection area that extended over their property as of the time they bought it.

When the owners of the airport first went to the state aeronautics commission for help, the state airport inspector who regularly came to the airport for mandated inspections and knew the issue involved did what he could. He tried talking with the neighbors. He did his level best, but the neighbors were cooperating with no one. The airport owners then went up the chain of command at Aeronautics and asked the person assigned to airport issues to direct the airport lawyer in the State Attorney General's office to file suit against the adjacent landowner under Chapter VIII of the Aeronautics Code. That request was flatly refused. The State Aeronautics Commission, which had drafted the excellent law that protected public use airports, refused to take any legal action to enforce the very law it had written. This despite the fact that a public-use airport in the state was threatened with closure due to the illegal act of an adjacent landowner.

When it came time to actually protect an airport from closure, the Aeronautics Commission proved it was willing to have one of its lowest-level employees talk to the miscreant, but it wouldn't do a single thing beyond that action. One has to wonder why the Commission exists if it cares so little about public-use airports in its state.

The behavior of the Aeronautics Commission and its bureaucrat assigned to airports didn't end with the residential airport lawsuit.

A number of other airports in the state are experiencing displaced thresholds due to trees and buildings in the approach protection area. One, Grosse Ile, also asked the Aeronautics Commission for help. (I do not represent Grosse Ile or its airport.) The bureaucrat assigned to the task was fully aware of the law that required adjacent landowners to trim their trees and allowed the community to sue to enforce the law. But he demonstrated what might be considered a lack of spine or surrendering to political pressure. He has advised the community that its only alternative is to zone the area around the airport and buy the airspace rights from the adjacent landowners for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He refuses to give any assistance to the community in enforcing the state law prohibiting trees growing into an approach protection area. One has to wonder why he insists on ignoring the part of the Aeronautics Code most helpful to an airport and recommending a very expensive alternative. Whose side is he on? Is he speaking for himself as a bureaucrat or echoing the sentiments of the appointed commissioners?

Changes to be Made

If state aeronautics commissions are going to justify their existence, some aggressive steps should to be taken. First, they have to go to the legislature and the governor and see to it that there are good laws on the books to protect airports. Michigan's Aeronautics Code isn't perfect, but it's a pretty darn good start. They should seek passage of a state law that requires public hearings and approval by a state agency before any public-use airport in the state can be closed, because each one is a part of the state's transportation system. That sort of thing was required for railroad companies seeking to abandon any lines that were serving the public, so why not make it so with airports? The commissioners must make a loud and clear public statement, one that is preferably made a part of the State Aeronautics Code: Each and every public use airport is a vital link in our national transportation system. As a start, it should be placed in large letters on each state aeronautics commission's Web page. The bureaucrats who hear complaints regarding local airport rules and regulations have to agree to be willing to be fair and recognize that there are times that airport administrators are just plain wrong, and say so, rather than routinely roll over and ignore the users. The commission members themselves should be reviewing such decisions to assure that there are being rendered fairly and not regularly coming down in favor of airport administrators.

Finally, when there is a threat to an airport, aeronautics commissioners and the bureaucrats under them have to grow spines, get out of their warm, comfortable chairs, stand up to the "close-'em-down" set and make it clear that the state supports the existence of the airport and will go to court to protect each and every one, especially where the airport predates the ownership of the encroaching developments. They should litigate to force compliance with laws on the part of neighbors who allow obstructions to penetrate the approach protection area. Then, they have back up their statements when all else fails and go to the State Attorney General and demand that litigation be used to help save those airports.

Wringing one's hands over yet another closed airport while having the after-work beer is simply not enough.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.