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Crimped access, closure bids threatened airports in 2010

The year 2010 will be remembered as one in which pilots were called upon to fend off a variety of tax increases, access constraints, and potential hazards in the vicinity of their airports. Trying economic times didn’t help matters—and in many places, it took concerted efforts by AOPA and local pilot groups to achieve their goals over local political resistance.

From encroachment to outright closure, individual airports found themselves in a combative spotlight. In other cases, proposed changes to national aviation policy threatened to cast a cloud over many airports at a time. The following are just a few of the successes that were achieved by AOPA and local airport advocates in a less-than-hospitable economic and political climate for GA.

AOPA’s efforts in Congress and the FAA contributed to strong progress defending some 70 federally funded airports and airparks across the country from restrictive policies that would have curtailed residential through-the-fence access to airport taxiways and runways by aircraft owners living outside the airport boundaries. Commenting Oct. 25 on revisions proposed by the FAA to its policy, which has been under a two-year review, AOPA expressed satisfaction that residential through-the-fence access would remain in place, and be expended under some conditions, where it is now available. AOPA continues to urge that residential through-the-fence access not be ruled out in other locations. AOPA President Craig Fuller also briefed Congress, urging flexibility in connection with residential through-the-fence legislation.

On some occasions, local government also answered the call. The busy Venice, Fla., municipal airport benefited from future safety enhancements with the passage, after three years of debate, of an updated airport layout plan by the Venice City Council. The revised plan “would shift Runway 13/31 to the south, institute declared distances on all runways, install engineered materials arresting systems at the end of Runway 13, modify the golf course located on airport property, relocate the golf course driving range from the runway protection zone, move a fence line, and move a parallel taxiway along Runway 4/22,” as AOPA reported on July 28 (see also the embedded video). This came despite a difficult period marked by a Department of Transportation inspector general’s probe of the FAA’s procedures, and an unrelated audit of the airport’s finances.

Airport access restrictions, hazards thwarted

As with residential through-the-fence access nationwide, airport access was in the spotlight on the local level too. One such issue mobilized pilots in Reno, Nev., to form the Reno-Tahoe Aviation Association as a voice of advocacy for pilots based at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, following the announcement that long-term leases of two FBOs would not be renewed.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority planned to take over hangar rentals, indicating that it will rent hangars to existing tenants for a minimum of two years or until new GA hangars are built at Reno/Stead Airport. Then, existing Reno-Tahoe tenants would be given first right of refusal at Stead—where tenants may face higher rates for the new hangars.

AOPA Vice President of Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn met with members of the group to provide advice on working with officials, including participating in airport authority meetings and developing relationships with county commissioners, who appoint airport authority members. On June 22 he testified before the county commissioners about the value of GA, at the request of commissioner and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Robert Larkin. At the end of the testimony, the board presented a unanimous resolution to Dunn recognizing the importance of GA, and support for GA facilities at Reno-Tahoe.

While in Reno Dunn also met with Krys Bart, president and CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, and her staff, noting later, “I told her that it was imperative that any GA aircraft owner or operator who was based at RNO must continue to be accommodated at RNO, and that AOPA opposed any forced relocation to another airport.” Bart responded that a proposal for another FBO is currently under review.

In another Tahoe-area action, AOPA responded to a proposed ban on seaplane access to Lake Tahoe that was put forth in a staff report to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), which leads preservation efforts in the Tahoe Basin. The staff report had also called for new noise abatement rules at Lake Tahoe Airport, and increased fines for enforcement. The proposed rules would also have banned snowmobiles in residential areas. AOPA and seaplane pilots presented their case to city officials in South Lake Tahoe, airport officials, and TRPA directors. The proposed measures were not adopted.

Proposals to build power plants near airports are one sure way to pose unnecessary aviation hazards. AOPA works tirelessly to bring those issues to light early in the permit application process and did so again in 2010.

As AOPA pointed out when commenting on several construction-permit applications in 2010, one hazard associated with power plants and some other industrial facilities built near airports is the “large amounts of vertically directed unstable gases” known as thermal plumes. Power plant stacks, cooling towers, and other industrial installations can generate them. Some plumes are visible; others are not. Near airport approach and departure corridors, or traffic patterns, it’s a problem—one that has recently begun to gain more traction with regulators.

The FAA is now studying the effects of thermal plumes. “Until the results of these studies are known and possible changes to rules and policy are identified and/or published, pilots are encouraged to exercise caution when flying in the vicinity of thermal plumes,” it said in a recently added discussion of thermal plumes the Aeronautical Information Manual.

As with wake turbulence avoidance, flying upwind of a plume is advised if the hazard can be seen. An invisible plume could be encountered unexpectedly, especially during low-altitude flight. Pilots should study airport listings for mention of plume hazards such as this AOPA Airports warning for Riverside Municipal Airport in Riverside, Calif: Power Plant 3,000 Ft North of Ry 16 Thld Producing Thermal Plume, Avoidance Adzd.

AOPA will continue to work with pilot organizations in California and elsewhere to make sure that the effects of vertical plumes on light aircraft are understood and considered, said AOPA Manager of Airport Policy John L. Collins.

Airport communities: A considerable force

When someone devises a plan to close an airport to clear the way for other uses, that person may find himself up against a considerable force: the airport community itself. That fact was driven home with effect last April, when supporters rallied to the defense of Oceano County Airport, in mid-coastal California. A developer had proposed that the airport be sold by San Luis Obispo County for other uses.

The local aviation community responded by embarking on a major facelift for the airport, and inviting the community to Airport Celebration Day on May 8. “When local pilots get involved to defend their airport, it demonstrates that the aviation community truly cares about the outcome,” said Dunn.

Local pilots, led by Jolie Lucas and Mitch Latting of the Mooney Ambassadors, launched the effort to put the airport’s best foot forward for the May celebration.

“This is a perfect example of the AOPA engagement initiative for 2010,” said Dunn.

The airport’s ocean-side location makes it a favorite fly-in destination, as AOPA Pilot contributor Steve Ells, a California resident, wrote in the August 2005 AOPA Pilot.

“There isn’t another airport around that better combines the joy and freedom of GA flying,” he wrote. “Oceano, unlike some other less-used airports, is very well maintained. The windsocks are bright orange, and the webcams on the website are a great marine-layer fog-checking tool for pilots,” he wrote. Be sure to visit Oceano and savor its unique attributes.

Three years of hard work by an AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer can be credited with saving a Washington state airport from closing. That good news was confirmed on March 8 when the Port of Kennewick (Wash.) Commission voted unanimously to support an airport against a closure bid. That campaign was waged against Vista Field by commercial developers and some residents.

But ASN volunteer Marjy Leggett mobilized fellow pilots, who turned out en masse for the critical hearing. Leggett even arranged ground transportation for those who flew in.

“Airport supporters worked for three long years to educate the community and the elected officials about the value of the airport to the community,” said Collins. “They cultivated good political relationships and understood that educating their community about the value of the airport is a never-ending process.”

“To all of you from AOPA who supported us, we send you a huge thank you!” Leggett said following the victory.

It’s a continuing process, and a learning experience, when local pilots are suddenly called upon to protect their right to fly. For them, Vista Field’s victory stands as an example of how to work through the political process to keep the local airport alive.

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy

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