General aviation pilots and GA’s infrastructure scored a significant victory when the omnibus spending bill signed into law March 23 assigned a high priority—and banked a billion dollars—for funding improvement projects at small and rural airports.
AOPA believes the next logical step to get the biggest bang from that billion bucks is for Congress to pass the measure known as the FLIGHT Act, said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Jim Coon.
The omnibus spending bill provided $3.5 billion to the Airport Improvement Program to support planning and development of the public-use airports of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS).
“For large and medium primary hub airports, the grant covers 75 percent of eligible costs (or 80 percent for noise program implementation). For small primary, reliever, and general aviation airports, the grant covers a range of 90-95 percent of eligible costs, based on statutory requirements,” explains the AIP page on the FAA website.
Beyond the AIP program, the money that brightened the outlook for GA with the signing of the omnibus bill was $1 billion provided from the general fund, as discretionary funding for projects at “regional, local, or basic airports,” with the federal share of project funding covering 100 percent of projects’ costs—not the 90 to 95 percent match provided by a traditional AIP grant.
“This is a portion of the $10 billion that Congress has provided for our nation's infrastructure needs,” Coon said. “It's a shot in the arm and welcomed—but we need to do more, including reforming the program that distributes funds to GA airports to ensure that the funds are actually spent at those airports.”
How would passing the FLIGHT Act move the ball further down the field for GA?
A program called the Non-Primary Entitlement (NPE) program provides funds specifically for GA airports. As a rule, those airports with capital or maintenance funding needs receive $150,000 a year. According to NPE rules the airports can use the money “in the fiscal year it becomes available and the following three fiscal years.”
Unused NPE funds “expire after four years unless the sponsor obligates the funds under a grant or transfers the funds to another NPIAS airport.”
As AOPA reported in August 2017, the FLIGHT Act (which has been incorporated into the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill, but not the companion measure in the House) would let those airports roll over their annual $150,000 entitlements for an additional fiscal year, making a total of $750,000 available for project funding.
The legislation also would authorize the FAA to reduce the local match for certain nonprimary airport projects to 5 percent, and expedite environmental reviews.
Another provision of the FLIGHT Act, originally introduced by Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)—both pilots—would establish Disaster Relief Airports as a new category. Those airports would receive at least 4 percent of NPE funds for emergency planning, equipment, or facilities in case of natural or humanitarian disasters. In the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, and other crises, GA airports have proven invaluable staging places for relief and rescue operations, often conducted by volunteer pilots flying their own aircraft.
AOPA is also strongly advocating provisions that would end the practice of NPE funds being reallocated to other purposes—a point AOPA President Mark Baker emphasized in testimony before the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in April 2017.
The program no longer functions as it should to help keep up the nation’s 2,950 GA airports and enhance rural access to air services, he said, and the reallocation of NPE funds is a factor in the dysfunction.
For these reasons, AOPA believes the FLIGHT Act can address the growing needs of our nation’s system of airports and help keep local airports and the communities they serve economically competitive and vibrant in the years ahead.