When we think of the end of a general aviation airport, we tend to think of property being sold lock, stock, and barrel, often to developers who promise huge revenues to cash-strapped cities and counties—revenues, I might add, that often fail to materialize. One day the airport is open. The next it is gone. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes airports suffer a sort of “death by a thousand cuts” as they are slowly chopped up and sold off, piece by painful piece.
Queen City Airport is a busy GA field near Allentown, Pennsylvania. It serves as a reliever to Lehigh Valley International Airport, is home to some 90 based aircraft, boasts two instrument approaches, and is critical to the region’s air ambulance service. With some 20 businesses operating on the field and approximately 60,000 operations in 2011, the place is thriving. Add to that the fact that there are plans to expand the airport, including adding hangars to accommodate more based aircraft, and it sounds like a model GA facility.
So why do a minority of vocal members of the local airport authority want to sell half the property to a developer, closing the crosswind runway in the process, and setting up the diminished airport to die a prolonged but inevitable death? Good question. Money is certainly part of the equation. But in some ways the reasons don’t matter as much as the determination of the anti-airport forces. In this case, the airport has received FAA grants and is obligated to remain open and operating as an airport for 20 years from the date of those grants. The airport was originally given by federal authorities to the city of Allentown with the stipulation that it remain an airport in perpetuity, and you’d think the field was unassailable. But it’s just never that simple, and those who oppose the airport simply aren’t willing to admit defeat.
The city no longer owns the airport, which was conveyed to the local airport authority in 1999. The change of ownership doesn’t change the fact that the airport is obligated to stay open, and a significant majority of the airport authority wants to keep the airport alive. But one very vocal member of the authority—who also happens to be the mayor of Allentown—has other ideas.
There’s much more to the story, but the specifics of this case are not really the point—or not the main point, anyway. The big picture is much the same at many airports around the country. Some small group of individuals wants to get rid of the local airport, yet despite opposition from the FAA, pilots, businesses, and others, they keep pushing for closure. And sometimes, even with the law and the odds against them, they succeed.
AOPA has been working to protect Queen City for a very long time, serving as a watchdog of sorts and making sure that everyone concerned adheres to their obligations. This is a critical part of AOPA’s mission, and the team of advocacy experts that deals with these issues is every bit as dogged and determined as those who would close Queen City and other airports like it.
Situations like the one at Queen City happen over many years. Once plans to close an airport gain momentum, they can be difficult or impossible to stop. But we have tremendous power to keep such situations from arising in the first place—if we are vigilant and involved.
The AOPA Foundation works with pilots to help educate decision makers, nonpilots, and neighbors about GA airports. We support programs that help the flying community build positive relationships with those who can influence the future of airports, and we support efforts to educate everyone about the value their airport delivers. There are dozens of ways to do this, from talking to students and local business groups about how the airport serves their interests to hosting open houses and other events that actually get nonfliers onto the airport grounds. These things may sound simple. And in many ways they are. But the evidence shows that increasing understanding about the many roles GA airports play, and building good rapport with airport neighbors, helps prevent the potentially devastating battles that close so many good airports forever.
Think of this kind of engagement as an insurance policy. You make the investment, hoping the worst will never happen. But investment is the key word here. We need pilots to invest their time and resources in the work that the AOPA Foundation does on behalf of airports. And I’m not only talking to pilots whose airports have been threatened. In many ways it’s the pilots at airports where all is well who most need to get involved.
We can’t guarantee that every airport will win the support of its community. Nor can we guarantee that every decision maker will come to appreciate the value of a GA airport. But we can be certain that by getting involved and supporting the efforts of the AOPA Foundation, pilots like you and me can prevent more problems than anyone could ever hope to solve.