FAA to Bakersfield: NO! to airport closure

September 21, 2006

FAA to Bakersfield: NO! to airport closure
What part of 'obligation' don't you understand?

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Lest you doubt it, here is more evidence that the FAA is really getting tough on airport sponsors and making them stick to their agreements to keep airports open.

The city of Bakersfield, California, asked the FAA to release it from its obligations so that it could close Bakersfield Municipal Airport (L45) and redevelop the land.

The answer was an emphatic no.

And according to a KERO-TV report [ click here to view video], the city won't appeal that answer.

"L45 continues to serve the purpose for which it was created and its loss would be a substantial detriment to civil aviation interests of the region, state, or the national system of airports," wrote the FAA's acting Associate Administrator for Airports Catherine Lang.

In a 10-page, tightly reasoned response, she destroyed every argument the city advanced for closures and made it very clear that a contract is a contract. The federal government would continue to insist that Bakersfield uphold its side of the deal.

AOPA had asked the FAA to stand firm when the city formalized its closure request.

"The FAA truly supported AOPA and general aviation pilots on this airport," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And we greatly appreciate the agency's determined efforts across the nation to not only prevent airport closure, but to continue to improve the network of reliever and GA airports that are such an important part of our national transportation system."

Bakersfield claimed that the airport was underused, unsafe, and too expensive for the city to maintain. The mayor told the FAA that other airports could accommodate L45's 30,000 annual takeoffs and landings and its 100 based aircraft.

And, the mayor said, the "highest and best use" of the land would be "redevelopment for mixed use," meaning houses, apartments, and strip malls.

None of that matters, said Lang.

She reminded the mayor that the city had bought the former crop-duster airstrip in 1985, with the assistance of Congressman William Thomas, who still represents the Bakersfield area. He helped the city secure FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds to buy the land and construct a new general aviation airport. The city has also asked for additional federal funds to rebuild and realign the runway and add a parallel taxiway. In total, more than $10 million of AIP grants have been given to city.

"In accepting federal funding, namely AIP funds, the city has agreed to specific federal obligations, including the commitment to keep the airport open and make it available for public use as an airport," Lang wrote. "Because land was acquired with federal funding, this obligation runs in perpetuity." That, quite simply, is the contract the city agreed to. It is, in fact, federal law.

But even though the city's arguments were moot as far as the law is concerned, Lang proceeded to take them apart.

The airport is too costly to operate?

"The city's own 'Summary of Actual Revenues and Expenditures' shows that since 1994-95, the city has operated the airport with a surplus averaging $42,000 a year," Lang pointed out. And the city discourages aeronautical development, which undermines the airport's long-term growth.

The airport is underutilized?

There's a waiting list for hangar space; investors would build more hangars if only they could get leases from the city; and the fixed-base operator would like to expand if only the city would let him. One hundred based aircraft and 30,000 operations, "are healthy activity levels by any standard for a general aviation airport in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems," said the FAA.

The airport is unsafe?

The "personal opinion" of the airport director of nearby commercial service airport Meadows Field is "not a substantiated safety concern," replied the FAA. Nor is it his job to resolve airspace safety issues; that's the FAA's job. The agency has looked at the proximity of the two airports and "successfully addressed" any concerns, wrote Lang.

Other airports can take the load from L45?

Meadows Field (BFL) is experiencing record-breaking growth in airline passenger traffic and is expanding to accommodate that. It's also moving to restrict GA training operations like touch and goes and practice instrument approaches. "This is inconsistent with transferring 30,000 operations from L45 to BFL."

It's also why the FAA funded L45 in the first place, "to provide general aviation users an attractive alternative to [the] commercial service airport," said the FAA.

The highest and best use of the land?

"Consistent with federal obligations, 'the highest and best use of the land' is that it remain as an airport," declared Lang.

"Amen," said Boyer.

Updated: September 25, 2006, 1:48 p.m. EDT