June 1, 1997
General aviation airports in this country have been closing at an alarming rate. From almost 7,000 public-use facilities in the late 1960s, we are now down to slightly more than 5,000. The United States has been averaging one airport closure every week, but the Federal Aviation Administration figures are just in, and last year 70 public-use airports closed. Many of these are privately owned public-use facilities, and their owners succumb to the lucrative offers made by land developers. Obviously, the Airports department of your association is kept busy defending local airports with the assistance of your AOPA regional representatives and local airport support groups.
But, there are no FAA statistics for what I personally perceive is another growing trend: the closure of airport restaurants. Last fall, I flew the executive director of AOPA-Germany and his wife around Northern California for a day, to contrast our "user fee"-free environment with the situation in his country. The highlight of my little sightseeing tour was to be the Nut Tree in Vacaville, a favorite stop of mine for years when I lived in California. We touched down at this airport — much improved from what I had recalled in the 1970s — and taxied to the familiar tiedown area. Usually bustling with activity, the ramp at the end of one runway was barren. A call on the unicom to the midfield FBO yielded the shocking reply, "The Nut Tree Restaurant and shops are closed!"
In the north suburbs of Chicago is a longtime private airport that was saved from closure several years ago by the enlightened action of the two villages it adjoins: Wheeling and Prospect Heights. Palwaukee Municipal Airport has been a favorite destination and refueling stop for me, because I have family in the area. Here is an airport with a very active local support group, the Palwaukee Pilots Association (PAPA). No stop over these many years has been complete without at least one meal or cup of coffee at The Hangar restaurant, where I can always find PAPA members with whom to discuss local airport politics. A few months ago, as I walked across the parking lot from Priester Aviation, there was The Hangar with plywood on the windows — shut completely down.
The Ohio State University airport restaurant at Don Scott Field, The Barnstormer, officially closed its doors on April 30. This is a place I had used for fuel stops between the Midwest and East Coast for many years. The walls of The Barnstormer, like those of many airport restaurants, were filled with pictures and memorabilia from locals.
If all these closures weren't bad enough, our local Airway Café on AOPA's headquarters airport in Frederick, Maryland, also shut its doors in late April. Is someone trying to send me a message, or what?
Now don't get me wrong about the quality of many of these establishments. Most airport restaurants are not known for their service or cuisine, and they are often overpriced. But the on-airport coffee shops hold so much meaning to those of us who love aviation. The celebration of our first solo, or sharing the excitement of that stranger who "floats" in after the same accomplishment, is part of the ambiance. Often one encounters the student pilot who is on his or her first solo cross-country and is beaming ear-to-ear, amazed that everything worked out. Pilots use the airport restaurant to mull over a go or no-go decision when the weather turns sour. I can't tell you how many times an hour or two at a strange airport coffee shop provided me the necessary break to make a calm and informed decision whether to proceed or remain overnight.
When my wife, Lois, was getting her private certificate, the Airway Café provided a meeting ground away from the FBO where she could debrief me on lessons such as the stall series and I could bring out a handkerchief to dry her tears away. Airports with restaurants on the field often become the destination for a 1- or 2-hour flight when the rental airplanes are booked too solidly for a day (or longer) trip. Yes, these are properly termed "$100 hamburger" flights. There is also no better way to get a nonpilot hooked on flying than an introductory lunch or dinner flight. I often use the AOPA's Airport Directory to determine places to fly that have "restaurants on the field," and in flight this valuable association publication often determines where I will stop for fuel and a break on long trips.
Many airport coffee shops come alive when the weather is terrible. We all love to "hangar fly," and what better place than over breakfast or lunch at the local airport café on a rainy day? It amazes me to listen to and participate in the stories that pilots love to tell about their close calls. If all were as real as the stories, none of us would be around today. Yet, these discussions do benefit those of us who are always trying to be safer pilots by learning from others.
Most important to all of us who want to see GA survive and grow are the nonpilots who decide to have a meal at the airport restaurant. They often bring their children to watch the airplanes, and we should not ignore these individuals who could be candidates to join our ranks. Do you and the pilots at your table seize this as an opportunity to share the joys of learning to fly? If not, why not?
The battle to save local airports in this country will continue to escalate, and AOPA will work even harder in its efforts to maintain a strong general aviation airport system — at the federal and state levels through proper funding, and locally with airport support groups and proper land-use planning. As you reflect on your local airport, whether it is under the threat of closure or not, take a moment to think about the airport restaurant and the significant role it plays in all of our lives as pilots.
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