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FAA would defend California's Reid-Hillview Airport against closure

The FAA has notified a California county’s governing board that it would vigorously oppose any renewed effort to close an important regional airport that some local officials want to replace with housing units.

Reid-Hillview of Santa Clara County Airport. Photo by Mike Fizer.

The agency sent its laundry list of disincentives to officials in Santa Clara County, where the board of supervisors is attempting to revive efforts dating back several decades to close Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV).

The major reliever airport in San Jose is a two-runway towered facility with numerous thriving businesses including nine FBOs, flight schools, and a university aviation program. The airport hosts an estimated 165,000 annual operations that would have to be transferred to other area airports the FAA said are already capacity-constrained and therefore not suited to the task.

In recent months, the county supervisors have voted to stop accepting federal Airport Improvement Fund grants for airport upkeep—a preliminary tactic toward closing the airport because the officials believe declining the funds would start a clock running toward the expiration of grant obligations and a closure date of 2031. They have also begun studying potential nonaviation uses of airport real estate.

The county’s gambit may contain some fatal flaws, however. On October 18, the FAA countered with a letter it characterized as a “call to action” to Santa Clara County, strongly opposing closing Reid-Hillview and itemizing the transportation-system needs it serves. It detailed a ripple effect of “substantial improvements” the county would have to take to prepare its other airport in San Martin for a wave of overflow activity.

The San Martin upgrades would include a control tower to support Reid-Hillview’s current IFR training operations, a second runway, lighting and markings to provide safety equivalent to Reid-Hillview’s, and additional hangar and tiedown availability, the FAA wrote.

Then there’s Reid-Hillview’s carrying costs before any closure date the county might devise to set: The FAA pointed out that Reid-Hillview’s management, in a December 2018 presentation to the county supervisors, estimated that it would cost about $10 million to maintain the airport’s infrastructure at acceptable levels for the next 10 years—a pricey proposition without the federal AIP grants.

“While the Board may choose to use other sources, such as loans or General Funds, to maintain RHV please note that AIP grant funding would cover about 90% of the County’s cost for addressing existing AIP airfield discrepancies at RHV,” wrote Mark A. McClardy, director of the FAA’s Office of Airports for the Western-Pacific Region.

“Regardless of the funding source chosen to address airfield concerns at RHV, it is the FAA’s expectation that the Board will make the appropriate investment to ensure a safe operating environment for aircraft and tenants currently operating out of the airport,” he added.

Despite the passage of time between closure bids, the FAA’s response has been consistent, and again conforms to the tone it set 11 years ago when Santa Clara County pursued, but eventually set aside, a bid to turn the airport to other land uses.

Then as now, AOPA actively opposed closure—and when communicating our commitment to keep the airport operating on August 8, 2008, reminded county officials that the FAA “has indicated to us that they are prepared to take any and all action necessary to ensure” that goal. The FAA “is quite aggressive in protecting the federal investment in public-use airports,” wrote Bill Dunn of AOPA’s government affairs airport advocacy team.

That commitment appears to remain in force: In its latest communication, the FAA requested that the board of supervisors respond within 10 days with an action plan to “address critical airfield concerns” at Reid-Hillview.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web 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 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy, FAA Funding

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