AOPA is urging officials of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reverse a November 2017 decision to close historic university-run Horace Williams Airport, which UNC students have mobilized to keep open with a petition drive and a letter-writing campaign directed at state lawmakers.
The planned closure—first contemplated in 2002 but blocked in the legislature—was approved by a resolution of the university’s board of trustees, opening the way for an expansion of university facilities.
The advisory resolution to proceed to close “without any condition precedent relating to development of the Carolina North property” also notes that the airport has operated without a “formal connection” to university operations since 2011, when aviation operations of the University’s Area Health Education Centers moved to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The university, which evicted a local flying club from the field several years ago, has run the airport since about 1940.
Daniel Schwartz, founder of the UNC student organization Carolina General Aviation, has criticized the university’s position, noting that the airport’s financial losses could be traced to the administration’s freezing the number of rent-paying airport tenants at levels well below capacity.
“Letting those on the waiting list in will make the airport profitable,” he told AOPA, adding that airport supporters, who had gathered nearly 900 petition signatures by late March, planned to fly students, faculty, and perhaps university officials over the campus to showcase the airport while continuing their legislative advocacy efforts.
Schwartz also produced a documentary about the history of Horace Williams Airport, which is named for a UNC professor of philosophy who donated land to the school.
Student government has taken up the airport’s cause: A resolution of the UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate Senate urged the administration to lift a freeze on tenancy at the airport and characterized it as “a poor decision” for the university to “remove itself from the long list” of academic institutions that own airports.
AOPA is skeptical of the university’s rationale for closing the airport. The association questions airport tenancy policies and doubts the wisdom of shutting the field down considering student demand for flight training, at a time when the airline industry may face a long-term pilot shortage.
“Today the airport has just 15 tenant aircraft and an estimated 3,000 annual operations. In 2007, the airport had 47 tenants and 10,800 annual operations. More aircraft would mean more rental and fuel sales revenue,” wrote AOPA Southern Regional Manager Steve Hedges in a letter to W. Louis Bissette Jr., chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, and Haywood D. Cochrane, chair of the Board of Trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Confusing matters further, the University has previously claimed that it incurs monthly airport losses of $7,000, or $84,000 annually. But in a February 20, 2018, Daily Tar Heel article, Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for Campus Enterprises, noted that airport losses are $1.2 million annually,” Hedges wrote.
Addressing runway-repair costs, Hedges noted that it was “not clear whether the university has explored runway funding from the state Aviation Department, which routinely funds runway repairs for many general aviation airports.”
He added that the airport facilitates university fundraising efforts. “Alumni and donors use the airport to attend meetings and events at UNC. One influential alumni donor recently told me that by flying into Horace Williams Airport he can attend important university meetings and in the same day conduct business elsewhere in the region. The drive to, and aircraft congestion at Raleigh Durham International Airport, he said, would make that impossible.”
Hedges requested that the university officials reconsider the November 2017 action based on the inaccurate picture of the airport’s value that prevailed at the time of the closure resolution vote.