AOPA fights for Minnesota's Crystal Airport

November 19, 2004

AOPA fights for Minnesota's Crystal Airport

Click for larger image

AOPA's Bill Dunn testifies
on keeping Crystal Airport open
(Photo courtesy of Midwest Flyer)

Click for larger image

AOPA Vice President of Airports Bill Dunn on Friday argued against closing Crystal Airport (MIC). Dunn testified before a Senate subcommittee in the Minnesota State Capitol.

Proponents of closing the airport had convinced the Minnesota Senate to hold a hearing on the future of the airport - the first step in getting the law changed so the airport could be sold.

"Crystal Airport is an extremely important part of the aviation transportation system, not only in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but also in the nation," Dunn told the committee. "The six reliever airports in the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) system, of which Crystal is one, provide tremendous traffic relief to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). Without Crystal, operational delays and costs to the airlines would grow."

Other witnesses also testified against the closure, including Cirrus Design Vice President of Administration William King, who said the Duluth, Minnesota-based aircraft manufacturer regularly uses all of the MAC airports.

The proposal to close and sell Crystal Airport is backed by the Northwest Corridor Partnership, which wants to develop the airport's 430 acres. (See " AOPA to fight Crystal Airport closure plan.")

At the same time, Northwest Airlines also has been urging the MAC to spend more money at Minneapolis-St. Paul, including financing a new terminal building for Northwest's exclusive use, at the expense of the reliever airports.

"From an aviation standpoint, closing Crystal Airport makes no sense," Dunn said. "It handles 188,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) on its four runways annually. That's 94,000 aircraft. Those aircraft would not just disappear. They'd land someplace else in the Twin Cities area - most likely in Northwest Airlines' front yard - at MSP."

In his prepared testimony, Dunn cited a message from an AOPA member to prove the point. "When I come to Minneapolis on business, I fly into Crystal Airport," the message reads. "If Crystal Airport is closed, the next most convenient airport for me is MSP, and that is the airport I would use."

Dunn said that other communities and airlines recognized the value of funding and maintaining a system of reliever airports.

"In the country's most congested airspace, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey uses funds from three of the nation's busiest airports - La Guardia, Kennedy, and Newark - to help run its Teterboro general aviation reliever," Dunn said. "These communities realize that having a good network of reliever airports in a high-density airport environment provides direct financial benefits to the region and the hub airlines." Public agencies in Santa Clara, California; Reno, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Houston, Texas, take a similar approach, pooling funds from all airports in their systems to operate and improve both the hub and the reliever airports.

Dunn said that the Twin Cities' reliever airports also generated millions of dollars a year in taxes for city, county, and state treasuries. "Airport tenants pay personal property, real estate, and sales taxes that are never seen by the airport. Rather, these fees are used to subsidize other, non-aviation-related services."

The MAC also could face substantial federal obstacles should it try to close Crystal Airport. The commission has accepted federal Airport Improvement Program grants for all of its airports, including Crystal.

As a condition of providing the funds, the FAA requires that the airport sponsor agree to keep the airport open and operating as an airport for 20 years. Should an airport close before the grant assurance period has expired, the sponsor would be required to repay the funds.

But the FAA has made clear time and again during the past several years that its goal is to keep airports open and has refused to allow airport sponsors to repay the funds and close the airports. The only way the agency would agree to such a repayment is if there is a net gain to civil aviation.

"It's hard to conceive of any possible scenario under which pulling four runways out of service would amount to a net gain for aviation in the Twin Cities area," said Dunn. "Furthermore, if the MAC did close Crystal Airport and the FAA sanctioned the commission as the airport sponsor, it could affect federal funding at all of the MAC's airports, including MSP."

In response to a senator's question, Dunn said that the FAA could not stop the MAC from closing Crystal, but that there would be consequences if it did. He noted that the city of Chicago is currently facing fines and the possible threat of a cutoff of funds for O'Hare International Airport for its improper and unsanctioned closing of Meigs Field airport.

"And every day, airports and airspace in the Chicago area continue to feel the impact that resulted from Meigs being removed from the city's aviation system," Dunn said.

November 19, 2004