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The economic benefits of airports testimonyThe economic benefits of airports testimony

Statement of Phil Boyer
AOPA Legislative Action

before the

Subcommittee on Aviation
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
U.S. House of Representatives
The Honorable John Duncan, Chairman


The Economic Benefits of Airports

February 10, 1999

Mr. Chairman, my name is Phil Boyer, and I am president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

AOPA promotes the interests of those who contribute to our economy by taking advantage of general aviation aircraft to fulfill their business and personal transportation needs. More than half of all pilots in the United States—over 340,000—are members of AOPA, making it the world’s largest civil aviation organization.

Mr. Chairman, I am very pleased to be here today to discuss the economic benefits of airports and the important initiatives you and the subcommittee will undertake in 1999, the “year of aviation.” As you and the chairman of the full committee have already noted, aviation does not need to suffer further tax increases. We can build the aviation infrastructure we need for the next century by unlocking the aviation trust fund. In fact, our projections indicate a revised budget treatment for aviation could easily and swiftly lead to a doubling of the current annual spending level for the Airport Improvement Program without raising a penny from new revenue.

Our members deeply appreciate the high profile this committee is bringing to aviation and the critical needs it faces as we approach the next century. Judging from our experience in working with your subcommittee in the past, I know general aviation, the aviation community, and the nation stand to benefit from your wisdom as we confront our challenges together.

The economic value of airports

Mr. Chairman, I know you are already convinced of the value of our nation’s airports. You use them and you’ve visited them across the country. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to stress that airports, especially the smaller facilities that serve as a vital link to the world for small and remote communities, are rapidly disappearing.

Mention aviation, and for most people the picture of an airline jet comes to mind. But as you know, Mr. Chairman, a full 96 percent of the U.S. civilian aircraft fleet is general aviation aircraft rather than commercial jets. Three of every four takeoffs each day is a general aviation flight. Out of the 5,400 or so public landing facilities in this country, 5,000 are public-use airports that serve primarily general aviation rather than scheduled air service traffic.

These public-use airports, and the business and recreational activities they support, employ more than half a million people with a payroll of over $14 billion, and they pump $47.5 billion annually into the economy. For every dollar spent on aviation, $2.07 is generated in new economic activity.

That’s why it’s so disturbing that public-use airports are disappearing at a rate of one a week and climbing. In 1996, 70 public-use airports closed. While our national economy and infrastructure grows, we are watching an important part of our airway system shrink. Imagine the impact of closing one exit ramp a week on our interstate highways. Many of the airports that have closed or are threatened are designated reliever airports. Losing them will only increase traffic pressure on the major airports.

Airports are disappearing under the immense pressure of increasing land values as urban and suburban development moves closer and closer to them. Developers or local officials look at airports and see what seems to them like empty space and push to build houses or a shopping mall. For privately owned facilities, the pressure is even greater as their property tax bills increase along with the offers from developers. Local governments feel pressure to use the land on publicly owned airports to maximize their tax base. With the encroaching development also comes complaints about aircraft noise.

Airports are a precious national resource, and AOPA is working full-force to save them. We believe there are good answers to all these pressures and problems that don’t require airport closure. The most important is to make communities aware of the tremendous economic production their airports make possible. Our initiative is called the Airport Support Network, and it draws on our strength as a membership organization. Our goal is to appoint a liaison for every airport in the country. Working closely with our national headquarters, these liaisons will promote the airport to its community, which may not be aware of its importance to the local economy, and will try to prevent the problems that have doomed airports in the past.

Luckily, the bulk of communities appreciate the value of their local airports but don’t always have the resources to defend them. The Airport Support Network is general aviation’s early warning system and outreach program for the benefit of airports and their communities.

Part of our outreach effort involves a videotape we are distributing nationwide that explains the large economic value of airports using examples from communities that cherish theirs. Mr. Chairman, we will send copies of this tape to each member of the subcommittee. At this time, I would like to show some brief excerpts from the Airport Support Network video.

Airport Improvement Program: Protecting and enhancing our investment

Last year in testimony before this subcommittee we stated that improving the Airport Improvement Program is more than a matter of money. It requires vigilance. AOPA believes that beyond funding, Congress should also concentrate on protecting and enhancing the federal investment in our national airport system as an essential component in the economy. The FAA must be as vigilant over taxpayer dollars as they are in enforcing certification and safety regulations. We believe the approach taken by the committee to the reauthorization of AIP should once again be based on the principle that compliance should be as important to the FAA as the actual dispensing of grants.

Toward that goal, the subcommittee included legislative language in last year’s authorization (Section 111) to require a period for notice and public comment before allowing surplus property airports to dispose of all or part of an airport acquired through the Surplus Property Act. We hope the subcommittee will again include that provision and expand it to require the notice and public comment period to include all airports with property acquired through the Airport Improvement Program.

In addition, the subcommittee also directed the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review the FAA’s grant assurance enforcement program and report to the subcommittee by April 1. AOPA has been pleased to work with the GAO on this report and believe it will make several positive recommendations to strengthen the FAA’s oversight of taxpayer dollars committed in the Airport Improvement Program.

Finally, AOPA believes the subcommittee should take a serious look at the zoning requirements in the Airport Improvement Program. Currently, grant assurances concerning local zoning stop at the boundary of the sponsor accepting the federal funding. What contributes to the demise of many local airports is development just over the sponsor’s border that can creep literally right up to the edge of the airport. The FAA should require that sponsors accepting AIP grants have enabling state law and local zoning ordinances in place to prevent development around airports that would contribute to the demise of the airport.

Inadequate land-use zoning leads to incompatible land use, which then leads to noise complaints from residential developments or “obstructions” of airport approaches. Both put pressure on airports to curtail operations. Additionally, in many cases of incompatible land use, the airport loses some of its utility.

FAA grant assurances 20 and 21 require the airport sponsor who has accepted AIP funds to protect the airport’s utility through zoning where possible. But the airport sponsor often lacks that authority—or the FAA fails to oversee proper land-use planning by a sponsor that has the authority.

AOPA’s home airport, Frederick Municipal Airport next to our headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, is a perfect example of the problems arising from lack of zoning authority. The city of Frederick is the sponsor, yet its zoning authority ends at its border with Frederick County a half-mile from the airport. Frederick County has approved a massive residential development less than 1.5 miles east of the airport. The county also approved homes many years ago less than a half-mile south of the approach to the airport. Also, trees growing north of the instrument landing system runway have a direct impact on the utility of the ILS system, but because the trees are located in the county, the instrument approach minimums have been raised. In these cases, the city is unable to protect the full federal investment in this million-dollar all-weather landing system.

The amount of federal investment threatened by zoning problems is larger than you may think. In FY97, 10.3 percent of AIP funds—$152 million—went to noise prevention and mitigation. From FY92 through FY97, the cumulative AIP amount spent on noise was $1.176 billion. The bulk of these noise problems could have been prevented with proper zoning and planning, and the funds could have been used to improve airport safety and capacity. Some of these funds are used to buy property near an airport to establish a buffer zone or satisfy residents who complain about airport noise. I know of one airport that bought an entire development—houses, schools, and businesses—and razed it. Perhaps that was the least expensive solution for that situation, but proper planning could have prevented that expense.

Mr. Chairman, this is another area where some states have taken the lead and offer us a model we could employ across the nation. The state of California requires every county that has an airport (regardless if the airport is located within a city in the county) to have an airport land use commission that must develop a comprehensive land use plan. California requires any proposed project within a five-mile radius of the airport must be reviewed by the commission and compatible with the land use plan. I would note this approach is entirely consistent with the process in the regional and metropolitan planning process established by this committee in ISTEA.

FAA reauthorization and the trust fund

As you know, we are delighted that Chairman Shuster has decided to follow up on his successful effort to create a new budget treatment for highway spending by seeking a similar one for aviation. I am gratified that you, Mr. Chairman, and the leadership on the minority side of the committee will join him in this effort. I expressed my support for an effort to unlock the Airport and Airway Trust Fund last July in my column in our national magazine. We recently followed this up with a mailing to over 130,000 of our members regarding this issue.

In addition to budget reform, creating an independent FAA is one of AOPA’s most sought-after management reforms. Your legislation to create an independent FAA passed the House in 1996, and we hope to build on that success.

Together, a new budget treatment of aviation funding and an independent FAA create the potential for a more effective FAA with enough guaranteed money for FAA modernization and capital development needs. These reforms would build on the ongoing recovery of general aviation spearheaded by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s reform of the product liability laws through the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. It would also pull the rug out from under the Clinton administration’s drumbeat call for drastic and unnecessary revenue measures like user fees or aviation excise tax increases.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes our comments. Thank you again for the opportunity to present our views. I will be happy to respond to any questions.

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