The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has petitioned the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision allowing the closure of Richards-Gebaur Airport in Kansas City, Missouri.
"AOPA is arguing that the FAA should follow the letter of the law before it permits a federally obligated airport to close." said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president for regional affairs. "We don't think the court held the FAA to that standard. We want to make sure the court considers fully the national impact of its decision."
At issue is the way the FAA "released" Kansas City from its obligation to maintain the airport. In exchange for federal assistance, airport sponsors promise to keep the airport open. That assistance can take the form of money grants or transfers of federal property.
Kansas City had received both federal grants and surplus federal property for Richards-Gebaur Airport. The city asked the FAA to "release" it from its federal obligations so it could close the airport and use the land for a truck and railroad freight terminal. The FAA granted the request.
AOPA then filed a lawsuit in May 2000, challenging the FAA's action.
(Another lawsuit, filed by the "Friends of Richards-Gebaur Airport" and the neighboring city of Grandview, challenged the FAA on a different issue, arguing the agency hadn't properly followed environmental regulations. The appeals court heard the two suits together a month later.)
After almost a year of deliberation, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota, ruled June 11, 2001, that the FAA had acted properly in allowing Kansas City to close Richards-Gebaur Airport.
However, AOPA still contends that the FAA's action was "contrary to law, an abuse of discretion, and arbitrary and capricious."
That's because the Surplus Property Act, which allows the federal government to transfer federal property to local governments for use as an airport, also requires that the FAA approve any different use of the property. If the local government later wants to close the airport or use the federal property for something else, the FAA must approve. And the FAA can only approve if closing the airport is "necessary to protect or advance the interests of the United States in civil aviation," according to the law.
But the FAA applied a different standard to closing Richards-Gebaur Airport, saying that closure would result in a "net benefit to civil aviation."
"That's not what the law requires," said AOPA Counsel Kathleen Yodice.
In AOPA's petition for rehearing, Yodice told the Eighth Circuit that, "By allowing Kansas City to close Richards-Gebaur Airport, the court has provided the precedent for the eradication of numerous similarly situated general aviation airports throughout the nation. This can only weaken an already threatened aviation transportation structure."
AOPA has asked the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for a rehearing "en banc." That means all eight judges, not just three, will hear and decide the case.
"We know this will still be a difficult argument to win," said Dunn, "But we want to send a clear message: If you promise to maintain an airport, you have to keep your promise. And the FAA's rulings and regulations must follow the law."
The 370,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than 58 percent of the nation's pilots belong to AOPA.