Railways, highways, and waterways are vast systems of infrastructure that connect these miles and our country, bringing us a little closer together. And while these all play important roles in the national economy, it’s often the local airport that serves as a community’s most powerful asset. Unfortunately, it also tends to be the most undervalued and unappreciated.
To the average person, an airport isn’t much more than a strip of asphalt and some buildings. It’s a means to an end, taking us from Point A to Point B. There are more than 5,000 public-use airports in the United States, but most people are only familiar with the major ones such as Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta—the ones that get the press, serve the most passengers, and generate the big money. But these international hubs are just a tiny slice of our airport ecosystem.
In fact, most of our nation’s airports are private—about 15,000. And even though many of us may never land at one of these rural airfields, having them depicted on our charts and sectionals is a big relief for GA pilots in cases of emergencies. We’ve also seen an uptick in the number of privately owned airports over the years, showing a commitment to GA flying.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find a pilot who doesn’t find value in his or her local airport, the same can’t always be said for the nonflying community. Unfortunately, public perception of airports lying outside the major Class B and C airspace isn’t always favorable, and many elected officials view the airport property as just a revenue generator or a future shopping plaza. Far too many communities sit unaware of all the benefits their local airports provide—and even worse, some brush them aside as playgrounds for the wealthy.
Pilots, airport managers, aircraft owners, advocates, and enthusiasts understand that the airport is more than it appears. It’s a lifeline for rural communities, an economic stimulant, a valuable resource in natural disasters, and a medical savior to remote areas. According to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, general aviation operates a fleet of more than 200,000 aircraft into thousands of airports. GA contributes $247 billion in annual economic impact, produces 1.1 million jobs, and provides vital transportation and services to communities that would otherwise be left behind It’s not just the international hubs, but the backcountry grass strips and hidden gems in rural America that truly serve their constituents and must be preserved.
Today, advocating for GA and its network of airports is more important than ever. The number of public-use airports has declined dramatically, from around 7,000 airports in the early 1970s to just more than 5,000 today. However, since the establishment of AOPA’s Airport Support Network (ASN), we’ve seen the threat of airport closures slow. We are proud of this hard work on behalf of the aviation community.
If you aren’t familiar, our ASN program is made up of some 1,600 volunteers across the country who strive to preserve, protect, and support our community airports. With the help of AOPA’s regional managers, our network of ASN volunteers takes a proactive part in solving issues that arise at airports such as noise, residential encroachment, safety concerns, and various restrictions.
The ASN program began in 1997 during the contentious battle over an iconic GA landmark—Meigs Field in Chicago. In what AOPA called a “reprehensible action,” then-Mayor Richard Daley closed the airport overnight and sent bulldozing crews to destroy its single runway, making it unusable and stranding 16 GA aircraft parked on the ramp. AOPA and airport advocates had fought to keep the airport open for nearly a decade. The battle over Meigs Field became a wake-up call and a rallying cry for ASN volunteers and others committed to saving America’s community airports.
The ASN program has helped successfully protect many airports, but none is safe forever. We are seeing that today with Santa Monica and now Reid-Hillview, also in California. Local leadership such as mayors, city council members, and commissioners can make or break an airfield with the politics surrounding its operation. If you’re seeing any of this at your local airport, volunteer for the ASN program, because every airport is an asset worth protecting.
GA can’t afford another Meigs—losing just one GA airport is one too many. Let’s do everything we can to keep these irreplaceable pieces of infrastructure—whether it’s an international hub or a strip of turf in middle America.
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