FAA ‘impotent’ in protecting GA airports, AOPA’s Boyer tells Congress
The FAA’s compliance system, which is supposed to protect general aviation airports from mismanagement, fraud, waste, and abuse, is “woefully impotent,” AOPA President Phil Boyer told the House aviation subcommittee June 9.
“If our remaining GA airports are to thrive and continue to serve the public, it is essential that we protect our federal investment in them,” Boyer testified. “Unfortunately, the agency charged with that task, the Federal Aviation Administration, has fallen short of its responsibility.”
The General Accounting Office in May released a study exposing a string of inappropriate and sometimes illegal uses of airport land. Many of these abuses were first identified by AOPA. [See also the GAO report.]
“I first talked about the FAA’s failure to protect airports when I testified before this committee last year,” Boyer said. “Today, we have ample evidence from the GAO that AOPA’s concerns were not just rhetoric—we were right on the mark.”
The FAA administers Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants that provide funds for airport construction, equipment purchases, and other capital improvements. In exchange for an AIP grant, an airport sponsor contractually promises that the airport will remain open and be maintained for public use, and that airport land and revenues will be used only for the benefit of aviation.
“But when GA airports fail to live up to their contract with the FAA, the agency routinely fails to detect the failure, let alone take action to enforce the agreement,” said Boyer. “As a result, taxpayer funds are used improperly, and airport users suffer from a lack of proper facilities. Sometimes, there are even threats to aviation safety.”
FAA failures have led to ‘outrageous abuses’
Boyer listed a string of airports where the failure of the FAA’s compliance program has led to “outrageous abuses.”
In the case of Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, the FAA failed to follow its own policy of determining fair market value for the property. The FAA signed an agreement allowing the city to sell the airport for $15 million, even though the agency estimated the land was worth $33 million. GAO called the FAA’s actions “improper.” The FAA is now “reevaluating” the agreement to close the airport.
In the late 1980s, Aspen-Pitkin County/Sardy Field in Colorado restricted general aviation night operations in violation of its grant assurance. AOPA and others filed a formal complaint in 1989, but it took the attention of Congress to force the FAA to resolve the issue five years later.
Boyer put Atlantic City, New Jersey’s Bader Field in the congressional spotlight. Bader has suffered from severe neglect by the city and inappropriate non-aviation use of its land and facilities. When the city began unauthorized construction of a baseball stadium on airport land, the FAA didn’t act until AOPA complained directly to the FAA administrator.
The FAA allowed the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, to replace its airport with a dump, provided the city would pay the unamortized portion of its federal grants to a nearby general aviation airport in New Bedford. Fall River is closed; New Bedford is still awaiting its money.
Boyer said the FAA wrote a special agreement for Chicago, giving the city an “easy exit” from grant assurances that would keep Meigs Field open.
“While the FAA was giving Meigs away on a silver platter, it continued to tell the aviation community it was powerless to stop it,” Boyer testified. “The most irksome part of this is that the FAA assisted the city in trying to close this airport. The FAA should be in the business of preserving and protecting airports.”
AOPA noted that the FAA does not need any additional legislative authority to deal with airport compliance issues; it simply needs the will to use the enforcement tools it has at hand.
Boyer endorsed the GAO’s recommendations to improve FAA airport compliance oversight, suggesting that Congress enact the recommendations into law. He noted that GAO also recommended that the FAA formalize a relationship with AOPA’s Airport Support Network to increase third-party scrutiny of general aviation airports.
AOPA recommended that the FAA be required to conduct an on-site compliance inspection of all airports receiving federal funds, report back to Congress, and update the agency’s airport compliance handbook. In its annual report to Congress, the FAA should also include a list of airports not in compliance and a list of airports where the FAA is not following its own enforcement guidelines.
“Congress should concentrate on protecting and enhancing the federal investment in our national airport system as an essential component of the economy,” Boyer concluded. “The FAA must be as vigilant over taxpayer dollars as they are in enforcing certification and safety regulations.”
Copies of Boyer’s testimony to the House aviation subcommittee and the GAO report “General Aviation Airports: Unauthorized Land Use Highlights Need for Improved Oversight and Enforcement,” are available on AOPA Online.
The 350,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world’s largest civil aviation organization. More than one half of the nation’s pilots are AOPA members.
June 9, 1999