Rialto Municipal Airport- FAA Against Closure

Tuesday, April 5, 2005
Rialto warned by FAA
City told it can’t close airport
By Nikki Cobb
The San Bernardino (CA) Sun

RIALTO – The Federal Aviation Administration has drawn a line in the sand, warning the city in a letter that any attempt to close the Rialto Municipal Airport will be met with resistance. The complaints from the FAA range from safety issues contending that runway pavements are poorly maintained to fiscal problems such as undercharging for airport facility rental, resulting in the airport’s lack of revenue.

The complaints come as Rialto considers three options for the airport’s future. The airport could remain as it is; it could be scaled back; or all operations could be moved to San Bernardino International Airport.

“It’s really premature to say what we’ll do,’ said Richard Scanlan, director of airport/solid waste management for Rialto.

Rialto officials don’t dispute the FAA’s contention that the federal agency has given Rialto $14.9 million in grants for airport improvements and land acquisition, much of it arriving in the early ’90s.

“We’re very aware that the city has received FAA funding,’ Scanlan said. “But the language provides for operations to be shifted to another airport.’

According to FAA rules, Rialto is obligated to repay the agency for infrastructure improvements if the city closes the airport within 20 years of being awarded the grant.

However, $9.1 million of the $14.9 million was awarded to buy land. That obligates the city forever should the airport be closed or any of its property sold.

FAA spokesman Donn Walker said that when Rialto officials talk about moving the airport, they really mean closing it. And that’s not an option, as far as the FAA is concerned.

“It’s not up to the city to decide when an airport may be closed,’ Walker said.

“To move it would entail closing the Rialto airport,’ Walker said. “You may not close the airport without the FAA’s approval.’

The Rialto Municipal Airport is a “reliever’ airport. It absorbs small general aviation non-airline traffic, easing congestion on bigger airports like Ontario.

But it once was primed to take much more of the overflow of Ontario’s air traffic.

When Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994, however, San Bernardino opened the San Bernardino International Airport on the grounds of the old military facility. Its larger runway drew many of the corporate aircraft that Rialto had once dreamed of attracting.

In the letter, FAA Airports Division Manager Mark A. McClardy says that Rialto’s airport is “a critical reliever airport that plays an important role in serving aviation system needs in the Southern California region.’

But the opening of San Bernardino’s airport takes that burden off Rialto, Scanlan said.

“The role of reliever airport is far better met at San Bernardino than it ever could be here,’ he said. “Our runways are limited.’

The letter warns that if Rialto leaders try to close the airport, the FAA will ask the courts to intervene.

Through the courts, the FAA will seek enforcement of Rialto’s agreed-upon terms with the federal agency, and the return of all grant money the FAA has invested in the airport.

“If you move something, by definition you have to close it,’ Walker said. “That may not occur without our approval.’