Politician’s bid to close Pa. airport growing costly

May 1, 2012

Pennsylvania’s Allentown Queen City Municipal Airport is federally obligated to remain open in perpetuity and it boasts an annual economic impact of $10.5 million, according to a 2011 economic impact aviation study conducted for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Aviation Bureau. So, how could it face the threat of closure?

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has long been open about his desire to close the airport and use the property for alternative purposes. Now, as a member of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority (LNAA), which owns the facility, the mayor is continuing his effort to close the airport. AOPA and local pilots will continue to resist any bid by the airport authority, which is struggling to pay a $26 million court judgment in a land-taking case, to sell or close the airport.

Years of controversy arising from the mayor’s effort to force sale of the airport have probably cost the region’s taxpayers millions in lost business opportunities, stalled airport development, and employment, AOPA said.

Other airport authority members aren’t so sure about closing the airport, and AOPA is stepping in with the facts to keep it open.

“Civic-minded public officials and the local aviation community alike have grown extremely weary of fighting this nonsensical battle that costs working people a fortune to indulge one man’s war against aviation,” said AOPA Vice President of Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn. “It’s troubling in hard times for Pennsylvania’s economy that this would be allowed to continue for so long, at such huge cost.”

Selling the airport bubbled to the surface again in an April LNAA meeting during a discussion of a federal grant.

The airport authority voted 9-2 to apply for funds to construct a taxiway which would provide access to new hangar space at the airport, according to a local newspaper report. One of the two dissenting votes was cast by Pawlowski, for years notorious among aviation advocates for his waging of a solitary campaign to close the airport and turn the property—located alongside a major interstate highway—over to private interests, as noted in the newspaper report.

Dunn, in an April 23 letter, notified the LNAA of AOPA’s continuing commitment to support local pilots against any airport sale. He reminded the airport authority that the sale sought by Pawlowski would violate federal grant agreements, costing local communities even more in federal reimbursements than has already been lost in wasted economic opportunities.

“It is unfortunate that this private agenda is consuming a large amount of Authority business and the valuable time of members of the Board,” he wrote in to LNAA Chairman T. Anthony Lannelli.

The price of past decisions

The LNAA must find a way to pay $16 million remaining on a $26 million judgment against it for taking more than 600 acres of development real estate in the 1990s, reports said. The authority was planning to hire a consultant to review the organization’s assets and options.

Costly consequences of management decisions are not new to the LNAA and the previous municipal operator of the airport: In 2000, airport management was transferred from Allentown to the airport authority as a result of a property and revenue diversion settlement agreement. AOPA reported on the situation May 9, 2011, on the occasion of a visit to the area by AOPA President Craig Fuller, who rallied with local pilots to support Queen City.

Writing to Lannelli, Dunn cited a Pennsylvania transportation study estimating that Queen City Municipal generates $10.5 million in annual economic activity. Businesses often report that they value the presence of a nearby general aviation airport when considering relocating options, he added.

“Unfortunately, with all the controversy surrounding the airport, it is unlikely that any business would be willing to invest potentially millions of dollars in constructing new facilities either on the airport or off the airport,” he wrote.

AOPA would undertake any actions deemed necessary to ensure that the airport continue to operate in support of the region’s transportation needs, he wrote.