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Preservation and promotion of general aviation airports testimonyPreservation and promotion of general aviation airports testimony

Statement of Phil Boyer
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

before the

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


Preservation and Promotion of General Aviation Airports

June 9, 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 345,000—are members of AOPA, making it the world’s largest civil aviation organization.

Mr. Chairman, I am very pleased to be here today to talk about protecting our federal investment in airports. I testified before the subcommittee about this topic last year, and you may recall I told the subcommittee the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight and enforcement of general aviation airport compliance with land-use requirements is severely lacking. Today, we have ample evidence from the General Accounting Office that AOPA’s concerns were not just rhetoric—we were right on the mark. I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the ranking minority member, Mr. Lipinski, for requesting this report from the GAO and for their strong continued support for protecting our investment in aviation infrastructure.

I was pleased to testify here in February on the economic value of general aviation airports. You may recall that I testified that general aviation airports are closing at the disturbing rate of one a week. General aviation airports support $47.5 billion in economic activity and $15.2 billion in salaries for 529,000 workers. Unlike the nation’s larger airports, which are mostly commercial service facilities, general aviation airports depend on AIP grants as their number-one source of funds. If our remaining general aviation airports are to thrive and continue to serve the public, it is essential that we protect our federal investment in them. Unfortunately, the agency charged with that task—the Federal Aviation Administration—at times has fallen short of its responsibility.

The General Accounting Office released its study titled “General Aviation Airports: Unauthorized Land Use Highlights Need for Improved Oversight and Enforcement” last month. The report exposed a string of inappropriate and sometimes illegal uses of airport land and facilities and the woefully impotent compliance system at the FAA that allowed them to occur.

As you know, the FAA administers the Airport Improvement Program, which provides grants to airports for construction, equipment purchase, and similar capital improvements. In exchange for a grant from AIP or earlier federal programs, an airport must provide a written grant assurance, essentially a contract, which ensures among other things the airport will remain open and maintained for public use and reserving use of airport land and revenues for the benefit of aviation. Grant assurances usually last the useful life of the improvement up to 20 years. Land purchased with AIP funds require grant assurances lasting as long as the airport is on the land. Similar assurances apply to land acquired through other federal programs, such as the Surplus Property Act.

Mr. Chairman, imagine if you will any contract, such as one you would sign for taking out a loan. Both parties make promises, and there are consequences for failing to live up to them. A lender might insist that property be put up by the borrower as collateral and maintained to preserve its value. The borrower must make the payments on time. Miss a payment or two, and the lender will insist that they be paid promptly, charge a late fee, and keep a closer eye on the borrower. Miss many payments, and the lender will cancel the contract and force the borrower to pay back the balance of the loan in full or repossess the property. Moreover, a lender requires a borrower to properly—and lawfully—use and maintain the property you buy with the loan. For example, using your home for a business in violation of zoning laws could violate the terms of a mortgage. A lender could take action in that situation too.

However, when general aviation airports fail to live up to their contractual agreements with the FAA, the agency routinely fails to detect the failure, let alone take action to enforce the agreement. As a result, taxpayer funds are used improperly, and airport users suffer from a lack of proper facilities or even threats to aviation safety.

By law, the FAA is responsible for overseeing and enforcing grant assurances, as well as approving exceptions. The agency’s compliance policy handbook, last updated in 1989, clearly requires this enforcement on the field office level. The FAA’s 19 district offices and four of the nine regional offices of its Office of Airports are responsible for monitoring compliance. Enforcement ensures that the federal investment in airports—which has reached $4.7 billion for general aviation airports—is protected from waste, fraud, and abuse.

The GAO found that only four of these 23 field offices even bother to monitor compliance on a regular basis. These offices oversee only 426 (21 percent) of the 2,000-plus general aviation airports that are operating under grant assurances.

Of these four field offices, only three actually conducted on-site inspections, though not often. FAA staff visited airports a total of 27 times to ensure compliance in 1998. The rest of the compliance program at these four field offices depends entirely on self-certification by airports and complaints by third parties. The pitfalls of depending on self-certification and complaints are obvious. A 1994 Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report examined one field office and found that 14 of 15 airports found to be in violation had previously certified themselves as in compliance. Third-party complaints had been filed against only two of the 15 airports.

The FAA’s compliance program has led to outrageous abuses, many of which were first identified by AOPA. Our members deal daily with the barriers caused by these abuses. Among the creative use of taxpayer-purchased airport land and facilities identified by GAO were a dog pound, a water plant, little league baseball parks, a mobile home park, a senior center, a mosquito control unit, public-use hunting and farming areas, and a landfill. In many cases, the airport sponsors didn’t even bother to charge fair-market rent for these uses, let alone obtain FAA approval for violations of the grant assurances.

The hunting and landfill uses are of special concern because of the safety threat. The hunting area contained crops planted to attract game birds, and the landfill also attracted birds. Aircraft have struck birds at both of these airports; luckily, there have been no fatalities. In other cases, survey and construction activities related to unauthorized land use have presented safety hazards.

The GAO described in detail the shortcomings of the FAA’s compliance policies and practices. Let me bring to the table today some of the problems AOPA members have confronted at individual airports, and how we are directly affected by them.

Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport, Kansas City, Missouri

Last July, the FAA signed a memorandum of agreement releasing Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, from grant assurances and surplus land requirements. The city wanted to close the airport to build an intermodal rail depot. Though the FAA required the city to spend an estimated $15 million on other airports in the area, it failed to follow its own policy to determine fair market value of the property first. The $15 million was well below the FAA’s rough estimate of the value of the land, which it placed at $33 million, but it never appraised the land to get an accurate figure. Further, most of the land at Richards-Gebaur was granted under the Surplus Property Act after an Air Force base closed. When releasing an airport under that statute, the FAA’s compliance policy requires a clear benefit to civil aviation and payment of fair market value of the property. The GAO called the FAA’s failure in this case “improper.”

Like every general aviation airport, Richards-Gebaur is part of a national transportation system supported by federal tax dollars. Our members suffer both as taxpayers and aviators when airport property is treated this way.

Merrill C. Meigs Field, Chicago

Meigs Field, a dynamic, convenient airport within walking distance of downtown Chicago and a convention center, came under attack from Mayor Daley and the city of Chicago in 1996. The airport, owned and operated by the Chicago Department of Aviation, sits on property owned by the Chicago Park District, whose members are appointed by the city. Though Meigs is located near a large lakefront park area, the city wanted to convert the land to a park. The lease with the commission had expired, and city officials claimed that because the airport had a lease arrangement, the city did not technically own the land and the Park District was not a party to the grant assurances!

The FAA wrote special grant assurance clauses that would allow the city to repay grants if a “long term lease or purchase agreement for the airport is not entered into prior to the current lease expiration.” This was, of course, a custom-made grant assurance that gave the city an easy exit. While it was giving Meigs away on a silver platter, the FAA continued to tell the aviation community it was powerless to stop it. Only intervention by the state legislature and governor brought relief, and Meigs will remain open until at least 2003.

The most irksome part of the Meigs story 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. In a time when we are losing one general aviation airport every week, the FAA’s willingness to help close an important, strategically located airport is disturbing.

Bader Field, Atlantic City, New Jersey

One of the most disturbing cases of abuse and lack of FAA enforcement examined extensively by the GAO is Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Bader has suffered from inappropriate non-aviation use of its land and facilities, as well as severe neglect by the city, which owns the airport. Without FAA approval or reimbursement, the city has built a high school football field and a minor league baseball stadium on airport land. The city clearly wants to close the airport altogether to use the land for other purposes. Atlantic City officials have claimed that lack of use and unsafe conditions justify closing Bader Field, but this was a self-fulfilling prophecy—the city’s failure to provide adequate facilities for aviation and its encroachment on airport land caused these problems.

When the city began construction of the ballpark, AOPA notified the FAA regional office, but no action was taken. We then took our complaints to FAA headquarters, and we were told they were concerned, but again no action was taken. Finally, I personally called David Hinson, the administrator at the time. He was shocked to learn that Atlantic City had begun building a ballpark on airport land right under his nose without even telling the FAA of its plans, and David took immediate action. Mr. Hinson is to be commended for addressing the problem promptly, but if every blatant violation requires a phone call to the administrator, why does the FAA bother to have field office staff?

Aspen-Pitkin County/Sardy Field, Aspen, Colorado

In the late 1980s, Aspen Field in Colorado restricted general aviation operations to daylight hours while allowing commercial operations until the airport closed at 11 p.m. This was in violation of Aspen’s grant assurance, which required the airport to “make its airport available for public use on fair and reasonable terms without unjust discrimination, to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical uses.” AOPA, working with other industry associations, filed a formal complaint with the FAA in October 1989. While the FAA did withhold further AIP funds, it did not resolve this complaint for five years, and the airport continued to restrict GA operations during that time. Only attention from Congress in late 1994 forced a final action on the issue. The FAA had the power to solve this problem, but the agency dragged its feet.

Fall River Airport, Fall River, Massachusetts

The town of Fall River, Massachusetts, decided to replace its airport, along with the businesses and 44 aircraft based there, with a lucrative landfill. Of course, we regret the loss of any general aviation airport, but the issue here is the reimbursement of grant funds by the airport. In February 1996, the FAA allowed city to close airport provided it pay the unamortized portion of grants, which was about $30,000, to a nearby general aviation airport in New Bedford. Fall River Airport is gone, replaced by a dump, but the reimbursement still has not been paid. The Justice Department subsequently decided the amount of money involved did not justify legal action.

Mr. Chairman, when you or I buy a house, we come to settlement with a check, and we don’t get the keys until we hand it over. In the case of Fall River, the FAA could have simply required the city to complete the payment before settling the matter.

The FAA was well aware of all five of the cases I have discussed today. These cases demonstrate the second problem with the FAA’s compliance oversight—even when the FAA is aware of non-compliance, it often fails to act at all or acquiesces to the airport sponsor by rubber-stamping the abuse.

Of 24 cases of non-compliance the GAO examined, the FAA had placed only two in non-compliance status, the first step toward assessing an administrative civil penalty or going to court to enforce the contract or even reclaim title to the land. In addition to these powers, the FAA has another strong enforcement tool available—it can ask the secretary of Transportation to withhold transportation funding of all types from local governments that divert revenue generated by a public airport. Yet the GAO found the FAA has never recommended that aviation, highway, or other funding be withheld for this reason. Said the report:

“FAA has not used its available enforcement actions effectively to deter violations or recoup losses to the federal government. It has not withheld transportation grants, taken back the title to airport land, or taken action through the courts. When such actions are not taken, even in cases of long-standing non-compliance, the lack of action becomes a de facto policy of permissiveness.”

FAA’s response

In recent years, the FAA has taken tentative steps to beef up its compliance efforts. The GAO reports that the agency revised its airport revenue use policy to require audits of selected airports to determine if revenue diversion has occurred. The agency also established an Airports Compliance Division within the Office of Airports to advise and support field office compliance personnel.

Nevertheless, the FAA reaches into its bag of tricks and blames a shortage of personnel for the compliance shortcomings in its field offices. But the GAO rejects this excuse. The FAA’s compliance handbook, says the GAO report, “clearly states the requirement to have a monitoring system in place,” and “Airports Division staffing levels have not changed significantly since 1985 and have actually increased.”

The FAA says it has devoted its staff resources primarily to compliance review of commercial service airports. In response, the GAO says “while we acknowledge that the oversight of commercial service airports is important, this does not relieve FAA from its responsibility for ensuring that all airports comply with the requirements associated with the federal funding or land they receive.” Since 98 percent of the airports receiving AIP funds are general aviation facilities, we concur with the GAO’s judgment that concentrating on commercial airports is a misguided policy.

GAO recommendations

Mr. Chairman, we concur with the GAO in that FAA does not need additional legislative authority to deal with airport compliance issues, it simply needs the will to enforce them. We believe the recommendations GAO made in the report will go a long way toward solving the compliance oversight problem. The GAO called for the secretary of Transportation to direct the FAA to periodically visit airports to check compliance and hold its field offices accountable for taking enforcement actions.

The GAO also recommended that the FAA formalize a relationship with organized efforts such as AOPA’s Airport Support Network to increase third-party scrutiny of general aviation airports. While we’ve already heard that relying too heavily on third-party participation in compliance review is inadequate, we think it has a role to play, and we are willing to be part of that process.

In my testimony in February, I told the subcommittee about the Airport Support Network (ASN). You may recall that I provided a videotape about the ASN to subcommittee members and played an excerpt at the hearing. The ASN is a network of AOPA volunteers, one at each airport, who monitor issues of importance to pilots and provide local input. The purpose is to solve small problems before they grow, and it is a suitable vehicle for coordination of compliance efforts with the FAA. We would be happy to consider formalizing a relationship with the FAA to enhance its third-party compliance monitoring efforts.

AOPA recommendations

Last year in testimony before this subcommittee we stated that enhancing 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.

Considering the poor state of monitoring and enforcement, and the dollars and airports at stake, we think Congress should consider legislation enacting the GAO recommendations. Otherwise, history suggests the FAA will fall back into its old patterns and claim that “budget” or “workload” prevents them from doing what they are supposed to do. AOPA also believes the FAA should be required to notify Congress about all airport compliance activity.

AOPA would propose the FAA administrator also conduct an on-site inspection of all applicable airport sponsors and provide the full committee with a report on the findings. Additionally we would suggest the administrator issue a revised compliance handbook within 90 days of enactment. A revised handbook could direct the FAA field offices to establish regular airport monitoring primarily through on-site inspection, educate airports and airport sponsors about land-use restrictions, and establish specific criteria for initiating and following through on enforcement actions. Finally we believe the FAA should to add to its annual report to Congress a list of airports not in compliance and a list of airports where enforcement actions are not within the FAA’s own guidelines. We believe these steps are reasonable ways to improve the compliance problem without putting a significant burden on the FAA, and we respectfully request that they be considered as part of this year’s authorization.

Let me thank you, the ranking member, and the subcommittee for its continuing focus on general aviation airports and the important role general aviation plays in our nation’s air transport system.

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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