July 25, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, presented by the FAA with a clear picture of the costs and consequences of closing the Allentown, Pa., Queen City Municipal Airport, has signaled its overwhelming distaste for the idea.
Over the objections of a lone opponent, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority voted 13-1 on July 24 to settle a long-running debate by reaffirming its commitment to operating the airport. The authority’s resolution rejected bids—motivated in part to raise cash to satisfy an adverse judgment in a land-taking case—to sell all or part of the airport. The sole dissenting vote came from airport authority board member and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, according to a local newspaper account.
AOPA expressed satisfaction that airport advocates had, over a long stretch of time, pressed a strong case with airport authority members for the airport, which is estimated to contribute $10.5 million annually to the local economy.
“At least for the term of this airport authority board, the future operations of Queen City airport are secure,” said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airport advocacy. He credited local pilots affiliated with the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association, and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Rae Klahr for staying engaged in the issue, attending airport authority board meetings, and being accessible to airport authority members.
The FAA letter, written in response to a request from the airport authority for “technical assistance,” proved a major factor in the vote.
The July 12 letter from FAA Airport Compliance Director Randall S. Fiertz spelled out a lengthy, step-by-step process that would precede any final decision to close the airport. The letter also noted the FAA’s reluctance to process any applications for airport improvement grants for Queen City while the airport authority continued to ponder closing the airport.
“If the LNAA wishes to sell the entire airport and transfer its obligations, then an approved replacement airport of equal or greater value to the aviation system, providing at least the same level of services, must be commissioned for full use before the FAA will grant the release to close the existing airport,” Fiertz wrote. “Due to significant planning, environmental, forecasting, construction and other requirements, the FAA anticipates a new replacement facility would not be operational for 10 years or longer from the date of the closure request.”
The letter also addressed scenarios in which only a portion of the airport would be closed, describing one publicly discussed proposal as inconsistent with the settlement agreement turning the airport’s sponsorship for purposes of receiving federal aid over to the airport authority from the city of Allentown. The agreement requires that the airport be operated as such in perpetuity, the FAA said.
Meanwhile, an adverse ruling in a land-taking case still leaves the airport authority with the need to come up with about $16 million to satisfy the judgment. The case concerned 632 acres of development land associated with Willow Brook Farm, a residential complex that had been planned near the Lehigh Valley International Airport.
“Throughout this effort to protect the Queen City airport, AOPA has regularly met with FAA officials, reached out to members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, and developed strategy with local pilots,” Dunn said.
“Those advocacy efforts have now resulted in this statement by the airport authority that it is time to get back to the business of running—not running down—this important general aviation airport,” he said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.
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