AOPA has filed a precedent-setting suit challenging the FAA's authority to allow an airport to close by "releasing" the airport sponsor from federal grant assurances and property deed restrictions. A federal appeals court will hear AOPA's arguments June 13.
"Based on our research of the law, Congress did not give the FAA the authority to release an airport sponsor from its promise to keep the airport open," said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president for regional affairs. "If we succeed in court, it will set a precedent that will make it much harder to close airports that have received federal funds or federal land."
The suit was filed specifically to challenge the FAA's decisions that permitted Kansas City (Missouri) to close Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport, a former Air Force base conveyed in 1985 for use as a civilian reliever airport. The FAA released the city from its federal grant and property deed obligations to operate the base as an airport in 1999.
In its 163-page brief, AOPA told the court that if the FAA's decision is allowed to stand, it could lead to the closure of other reliever airports. AOPA reminded the court that these general aviation airports help alleviate congestion at the nation's busiest airports.
Richards-Gebaur, like some 2,400 other public-use airports, has received Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants that are funded by the user-financed Airport and Airway Trust Fund. An AIP grant requires the airport sponsor to sign a contract promising to keep the airport open and available to all classes of users for 20 years.
Kansas City received more than $8 million in AIP grants for Richards-Gebaur, including some $1.26 million in 1996. Yet one year later, the city asked the FAA for permission to close the airport. The city wanted to use the runway to park truck trailers and turn the airport into an intermodal truck-rail cargo facility.
Despite the fact that the FAA had just given the city federal funds to improve the airport, the agency let Kansas City out of its contract with aviation taxpayers.
AOPA told the court that was illegal.
"Congress, by law, gave the FAA the authority to give and modify airport grants," said AOPA Counsel Kathleen A. Yodice, "but there is nothing in the law that says the FAA can completely 'forgive' the legal promises an airport sponsor makes in exchange for taxpayer dollars.
"That only makes sense. Congress intended that airport grants be used to keep airports open."
AOPA told the court that the FAA "acted contrary to law, abused its discretion, and acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it granted Kansas City a release from its requirement to keep Richards-Gebaur Airport open for aeronautical use."
There is yet another issue in the Richards-Gebaur case, this one involving surplus federal land.
Richards-Gebaur was an Air Force base until 1985. The federal government transferred it to Kansas City under the Surplus Property Act to use as a public airport. And much like an AIP grant, the city had to promise to operate the airport forever in exchange for receiving the property. If not, the federal government could take the land back.
The Surplus Property Act does allow the FAA to release the airport sponsor from that obligation under certain limited conditions. But AOPA argued those conditions don't exist at Richards-Gebaur and that the FAA misapplied the law in this case.
In short, the law says the FAA can grant a release if doing so will not interfere with the aeronautical purpose of the land and that a release is necessary to advance the civil aviation needs of the United States.
"Kansas City got a release from the FAA for just two parcels of the entire airport property. Those two parcels just happened to include the only runway," said Yodice. "Closing the runway certainly interfered with the aeronautical purpose of the airport.
"Moreover, the FAA failed to show how closing the airport was necessary to advance civil aviation."
AOPA asked the court to set aside the FAA's action releasing Kansas City from its obligations under the Surplus Property Act and federal AIP grant assurances. The association asked the court to find that the FAA acted illegally, to order a stop to all further work on the truck-rail facility, and to return the property to its original state as an operational airport.
"This will be a difficult case to win," said Bill Dunn, "but if we prevail, it will be a major victory for general aviation airports nationwide."
AOPA will present oral arguments to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 13.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., represents more than 360,000 pilots who own or fly three quarters of the nation's 206,000 general aviation aircraft. General aviation aircraft comprise 96 percent of the total U.S. civilian air fleet.
May 19, 2000