USA Today stirred up a hornets nest on a piece they did in September in regards to the amount of money government spends to maintain small general aviation airports around the country. These are 2834 airports around the country that do NOT have scheduled passenger plane service. How much money are they getting? About $15 billion dollars the paper reported over the past 28 years since the “Airport Improvement Program” began. Where does the money come from? It comes from a federal program that imposes a 15% fee on all airline tickets sold in the U.S. to be used for general aviation improvements.
Each year over 2000 airports (both general aviation and commercial) receive money from Congress for things like runway improvements, equipment purchases, lighting, and noise abatement projects. The critics claim that general aviation has declined 19% from 1999 to 2007, yet the amount of money going to general aviation airports has increased from $470 million in 1999 to $1 billion dollars in 2007. While airports with commercial passenger plane service struggle financially to keep up with safety and air traffic issues, money is flowing to small airports that handle recreational private planes and maybe a corporate jet or two. 75% of general aviation airports lose money, and nationally half of the airports are within 20 miles of another general aviation airport.
The examples nationally are unbelievable. Williamsberg, Kentucky just spent $11 million dollars in Federal money for an expanded 5500 ft. runway and a colonial style new passenger terminal with white columns. The only problem is the airport has no passenger service. The airport manager said on a typical day 2 or 3 flights a day occur, and somedays there are none.
Proponents say general aviation is a necessity as only about 350 airports in the United States have regularly scheduled airline service. They claim business aviation adds $150 billion dollars to the economic impact of the United States and that they fulfill a need of moving cargo and people that cannot otherwise be met. They also bring up that general aviation airports are home to air ambulance services, traffic, and search and rescue operations.
Minnesota and its congressional delegation has been a part of this operation. March 27th, 2009 Congressman Walz announced $4.2 million dollars in grant money for the Albert Lea, Blue Earth and Windom airports. In April, Representative Jim Oberstar announced that grants totaling $1 million dollars were going to the Eveleth-Virginia Airport, the Ely Airport, the Grand Marais – Cook Airport, the Staples-Wadena Airport and the Walker Airport. Earlier this year $3 million dollars were awarded in Federal grants to the Bemidji, Brainerd and Chisolm-Hibbing Airports, all which have some scheduled services.
Redwood Falls this year got $1.4 million dollars in Federal money, along with $250,000 for Baudette. Even Aitkin MN got a $43,000 grant in May to do an environmental study for possible runway expansion. Mankato, St.Cloud and Duluth also received almost $9 million dollars in monies this year. Some of these were also funded through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. So as you can see, a lot of money is flying (pardon the pun) even in a tough economy.
There are 135 publicly owned airports in the State of Minnesota. Of those…9, yes 9 of them have regularly scheduled commercial flights. I realize they are a great source of pride to cities and in a few cases helped in economic development. But a person has to wonder why in this day and age, with the economies we are dealing with, we need airports in Fosston, Bagley, Park Rapids, Pine River, Longville, Backus, Wadena, Staples and Aitkin, when all of these are with 50 miles of either Brainerd or Bemidji, both with commercial service. Wouldn’t our money be better spent centralizing?
Pdf map of all airports in State of Minnesota: