The FAA has told the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, that it must keep Albert Whitted Airport (SPG) open. The strong FAA action was prompted by AOPA and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Jack Tunstill, and the action shows that the FAA is getting tougher on enforcing grant agreements to maintain public-use airports.
SPG is located on prime waterfront real estate that the city of St. Petersburg wants to redevelop into a park and mixed housing area. The city had accepted federal grants for the airport, and that obligates the city to keep the airport open. But the city thought that by repaying FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant money, it would be able to close the airport. In two letters and in no uncertain terms, the FAA told the city it couldn't do that.
"The FAA's response is important not only in St. Petersburg, but nationwide," said AOPA Vice President of Airports Anne Esposito. "Now we have letters from senior FAA officials that come right out and tell airport sponsors that you just can't take FAA money and then decide to give it back because you want to." She explained that in the past, AOPA would cite from FAA regulations to tell airport sponsors they couldn't just close the airport. Now the association can show that the FAA will enforce the rules.
FAA Associate Administrator of Airports Woodie Woodward stated in an April 12 letter to the St. Petersburg City Development administrator that "federal legislation does not specifically provide for the release of a sponsor's obligations upon simple repayment of those grants."
She went on to say that, "The city is obligated to operate the airport throughout the term of the city's obligation. In this case, it appears that obligation extends through the useful life of the improvements, not to exceed 20 years from the date of the most recent grant." St. Petersburg received more than $500,000 in AIP grants in 2001.
FAA Southern Region Administrator Carolyn Blum echoed these statements in her April 17 letter to Rick Baker, the mayor of St. Petersburg. "Albert Whitted Airport is very important to the regional, state, and national system of airports, with 165 based aircraft and a large amount of itinerant activity." Her letter was a result of SPG's ASN volunteer Jack Tunstill asking FAA Deputy Acting Administrator Monte Belger for the FAA's position on the possible closure of SPG at the "Meet the FAA Boss" forum at this year's Sun 'n Fun.
These letters set a new tone in the FAA's relationship with airport sponsors. AOPA intends to make sure that the FAA continues with this position regarding the enforcement of FAA contracts with airports that have received AIP funding.