AOPA opened a new front in its 12-point battle plan to reopen Chicago's Merrill C. Meigs Field this week, when association President Phil Boyer testified before the aviation subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives April 9.
Meigs was closed on March 31, 2003, when, under cover of darkness, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered work crews onto the airport grounds to bulldoze giant Xs into the airport's lone runway, rendering it unusable. He said at the time that the airport was ordered closed as a matter of homeland security.
Boyer told Congress that AOPA's members want Meigs reopened, and that they have "severe" concerns that such middle-of-the-night closures could happen elsewhere.
"We have received a higher volume of letters, e-mails, and phone calls about Meigs than about the closure of the entire National Airspace System in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks," he told the committee members.
During an audiovisual presentation to the panel, Boyer showed a video of Daley shaking hands with then-governor of Illinois George Ryan on the deal that would save Meigs and an audio clip of the mayor saying only nine days before the demolition that homeland security claims would not be used to close the airport.
He said AOPA was pursuing all legal and legislative means to restore Meigs Field, and he asked for the subcommittee's help. He told Congress that "security" must not be used as a ruse for airport and airspace closures.
Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's destruction of Meigs was "unprecedented and, in my view, illegal." Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) called the mayor's action "outrageous." But Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), who sponsored legislation to save Meigs as part of a larger Chicago airports bill, defended Daley's actions, saying that the mayor had every legal right to close the airport in the manner he saw fit and said that he supports the decision.
Boyer expressed chagrin at the sudden, peremptory end to a decade-long battle that was hard-fought on both sides. "The middle-of-the-night destruction exacerbated the situation," Boyer told Lipinski.
Boyer's testimony before the aviation subcommittee was part of a larger nationwide plan to restore Meigs Field.
Immediately after Daley closed the airport, AOPA filed suit in federal court in Chicago against the city of Chicago. The suit claims that Daley and the city violated federal regulations that require notifying the FAA before closing an airport and affecting any instrument approach procedures that may be in effect at that airport.
AOPA also filed formal complaints with the FAA about such notification, and with the Illinois Department of Transportation about the city's failure to obtain a certificate of approval from the state, as required by statute, before altering the airport.
AOPA is lobbying the Homeland Security Department to issue an order prohibiting restrictions or closures of public-use airports for security reasons without HSD's concurrence and a specific threat.
On Capitol Hill, besides Boyer's testimony, AOPA will lobby to thwart any attempts by Chicago to use federal funds for a park that Daley wants to build in place of Meigs. AOPA Legislative Affairs staff will also work to prevent any federal dollars from being spent at Chicago's two major air carrier airports, O'Hare and Midway, until Meigs is reopened.
At the Illinois capitol, AOPA is urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow the state to purchase Meigs from Chicago. And in Chicago itself, AOPA published an open letter to the mayor in full-page ads in the two major daily newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), in his opening statement, said, "In many ways, general aviation is the forgotten element of the aviation system. Although it was large commercial airlines that were used in the September 11 terrorist attacks, general aviation has borne the brunt of many of the resulting security restrictions."
Panel members showed an appreciation of the misunderstandings about what general aviation is and what it does. "We need to do a better job helping the general public know how important general aviation is to our economy," said John Duncan (R-Tenn.).
Rep. Bill Shuster added that members of the aviation subcommittee, who specialize in aviation matters, need to do a better job of explaining general aviation to their colleagues. "Members of Congress don't understand the importance of general aviation to the nation and to their districts," he said.
In one of the hearing's few lighter moments, the subcommittee's highest-ranking Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) suggested that the teams that will go into Iraq to rebuild that nation's infrastructure, including airports, could begin by practicing at Meigs.
While Meigs dominated most of the oral testimony and the question-and-answer period, the hearing had originally been called to discuss the FAA reauthorization bill, in which Congress lays out the spending priorities for the agency over the next four years. Boyer raised three key points with the subcommittee: privatization of air traffic control and aeronautical charting functions, the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) "pilot insecurity" rule, and creative approaches to apportioning airport improvement funds.
"The U.S. air traffic system should remain 'inherently governmental,' and not privatized," Boyer told Congress. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has reclassified air traffic control as a "commercial" function and, as such, eligible to be contracted out. But in written testimony supporting his presentation, Boyer quoted an OMB definition of "inherently governmental" as agency functions that are "so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by federal employees."
"We believe that air traffic control meets the definition of 'inherently governmental' and request inclusion of legislative language that would restore the ATC system to an 'inherently governmental' classification," Boyer told the members.
He also said the work of the National Aeronautical Charting Office should not be contracted out.
"Aeronautical charts and related publications are essential sources of information for the safety of flight, national defense, and compliance with FAA regulations. Aeronautical charting products directly support the operation of the ATC system...and it is therefore logical that the program's priorities remain under the direct control of the FAA."
Boyer called on the committee to ensure that pilots who lose their certificates after being declared a national security risk are entitled to due process. Under the current rule, such pilots may only appeal their certificate revocations to the TSA—the agency that would have ordered the revocations in the first place. "AOPA requests that the committee direct the Transportation Security Administration to include proper due process involving a third party," Boyer testified.
Boyer offered some creative alternatives for funding airports. The federal government currently funds 90 percent of the cost of many airport improvement projects through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), with the remaining 10 percent split between the state and local governments. In order to help more small airports (50 or fewer based aircraft) take advantage of AIP funding, AOPA is proposing that five percent of the cost (half of the state/local match) be waived for those small airports.
AOPA also suggested that grants for non-primary airports be increased from $150,000 to $250,000 per year, and that any unused non-primary grant money be given to the states for them to use on airport improvements at their discretion, rather that having the money returned to the federal pot.
Copies of Phil Boyer's PowerPoint presentation to the House aviation subcommittee and the full written testimony are available online.
With nearly 400,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest general aviation organization. The association is dedicated to representing the interests of all general aviation pilots and is committed to ensuring the continued viability, growth, and development of aviation and airports in the United States. These airports are a vital and critical component of a national transportation system.