FAA Takes a Fresh Look at GA Airports

Taking “A fresh look at the many roles General Aviation Airport play in the National Air Transportation System,” the FAA recently released the 34-page report of its in-depth, 18-month study of roughly 3,000 airports, General Aviation Airports: A National Asset.

By activity level, the study groups GA airports into four categories: national, regional, local, and basic. Each more clearly defines an airport’s functions and economic contribution to its hometown, and the nation as a whole.

The FAA undertook the study because it’s been 40 years since it last reviewed them. Noting that a lot has changed during that time is an obvious understatement. But one thing that has not changed is that most people who live in communities served by a GA airport don’t have a clue what goes on there, let alone what contributions they make to the community.

At the same time, most people who do know what’s going on at the airport, and what contributions its makes, aren’t very good at either articulating or sharing what they know with others. This study should help airport boosters who suffer from both afflictions.

When most people think “airport,” one of the 378 that serve the airlines is what comes to mind. Most won’t believe that there are nearly 20,000 airports, heliports, seaplane bases, and other landing facilities in the United States. It’s easier for them to get their heads around the 3,330 public GA airports included in the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems.

Airport-Map_thumbFor the past four decades, the FAA has classified GA airports as those that support limited commercial operations and those that relieve congestion at primary airports. In devising the four new categories the FAA didn’t include such factors as the number of runways and their length or the existence of a control tower because their variability made grouping them too complex.

Airport activity and the number and type of based aircraft proved to be a more effective and succinct way to better define the contributions of each. Among all GA airports, a few more than 1,200 fall into the Local category. With an average of 33 piston aircraft based at them, their moderate activity serves a regional market.

The 668 Basic GA airports average 10 piston aircraft and lower activity levels, and they support universal GA activities from medevac and charter to flight training and personal flying. The 467 Regional airports add jets to their 90 based aircraft and their high activity supports state and interstate markets. Serving global markets, there are 84 national GA airports, with 200 based aircraft and very high activity levels.

Giving examples of the big picture, showing how airports developed from the 1920s on and statistics, such as GA’s overall economic contribution ($38.8 billion in 2009, or $76.5 billion if you include manufacturing and visitor expenditures) the study makes it easy to connect your airport into the overall aviation puzzle.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the 497 airports that didn’t fit in one of the four new categories. Most of these airports, the study says, didn’t have the activity or based aircraft to make the cut. Others are seasonal airports, military fields recently converted to civilian use, or privately owned. But the FAA is working with the aviation community on a solution for those airports that are without a category of their own. And it sounds like the FAA will continue its GA airport evaluation on a schedule not measured in decades.

Getting into the final pages of the report, it seems clear in the Next Steps section that the FAA undertook the study to make airport planning easier and to better distribute Airport Improvement Program funds. That it is also an excellent information source for airport boosters,  an unintended consequence I can live with. –Scott Spangler