The best time to support a threatened airport is before it gets threatened. That means those of you who think, ”My airport is just fine,” had better read what this city councilman has to say and then start organizing.
By Bob Littlefield
CFI, CFII, ASC, AIGI, A&P
Scottsdale (Ariz.) City Councilman
In an earlier AVweb opinion piece Anti-Airport Activism,” June 19), I discussed the growing threat to general aviation airports posed by anti-airport activism. I pointed out that general aviation pilots have to get involved in local politics in order to protect our ability to fly freely and safely.
That article generated a lot of email, including many requests from folks defending their local general aviation airports for more details on how to fight this growing threat. In this column I want to share what I have learned and what works.
As with most things in life, being proactive is better than being reactive. It is a lot more effective to prevent that housing development from being built off the end of the runway than it is to deal with the complaints of the homeowners about aircraft noise after they have moved in. So my first piece of advice is to get organized now, hopefully in advance of any active problems, to protect your local airport in the future.
Which leads to my second piece of advice, which is to get organized. Protecting general airports requires a lot of time, effort and, yes, money. Plus, when (not if) you face vocal opponents who want to restrict or close your airport, they will almost certainly be well organized and funded. If you are not similarly prepared you will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Another reason to build a strong pro-airport organization is that protecting airports is a battle that never ends. In order to fight this battle long-term you need a strong, viable organization that can outlive the commitment and enthusiasm of one or two dedicated individuals.
When recruiting allies in the effort to protect your airport, look beyond just the pilot community. Businesses such as FBOs and flight schools that do business on the airport are obvious candidates. But there are usually many non-aviation businesses that benefit from a general aviation airport who understand and appreciate the value of airport to the local economy and have an interest in protecting it.
Scottsdale, where I live, is an excellent example of non-aviation businesses benefiting from the airport. Tourism is one of our most lucrative industries and 5% of our tourists (the biggest-spending 5%) arrive here via our local general aviation airport, SDL. The businesses in the airpark surrounding SDL include 30 regional or national corporate headquarters, many of which chose to be here specifically because of the ability to access their headquarters by business jet. These headquarters bring high-paying jobs to Scottsdale and meetings and conferences to our resorts.
Many general aviation airports are, like SDL, surrounded by an airpark; and, like at SDL, many of those businesses are attracted to locate in that community by the availability of an airport. That makes airparks the number-one spot to begin looking for potential allies and financial supporters.
Once you get organized you have to fight three battles: legal, public relations and political.
The number-one weapon in the legal battle to protect airports is the body of federal rules regarding airport grants. These rules are voluminous and complicated but basically they impose restrictions on airport owners (usually municipalities) that have accepted federal airport-grant money, including a requirement that the owner keep the airport open for some period of time. These rules have been used many times to protect airports from both closure and from unreasonable restrictions on operations, and you should know them and use them wherever they apply.
In addition, some states have passed airport protection acts. These laws vary in content and in effectiveness but they generally deal with land-use issues and give guidance to local governments on preventing incompatible land uses around airports. Get to know your state laws and use whatever protections they provide to the maximum extent possible.
One potential trap in using the rules is complacency: Many times during my battles against anti-airport activists at SDL I heard pilots downplay the threat because, “The FAA will never let them close the airport.” Unfortunately, the closure of Meigs Field in Chicago and the operating restrictions imposed at Naples, Fla., show that determined and powerful anti-airport local politicians can sometimes find a way to thwart these protections. That is why the public relations and political efforts are so important and cannot be ignored.
The first step in the public-relations battle is to work with your local media. Meet with the editors of the local papers and their reporters and show them why general aviation airports are important to both the country as a whole and to your community. AOPA has a wealth of good material on this, which you can find on their Web site. While you may get some mileage out of the idea that general aviation airports are an important component of the national transportation system, most local editors are interested in local angles. If your local airport supports medical evacuation and/or public safety flights, make sure that gets publicized.
One big plus is to emphasize the economic benefits of the local general aviation airport. Most people (including the pilots who use them) have no idea how many dollars general aviation airports contribute to the local economy. Your local airport authority, chamber of commerce, economic development authority or the business/economics department of your local university or college may already have done an economic-benefit analysis of the local general aviation airport. If so, make sure it gets publicized. If not, it might even pay you to get one done. It would be money well spent.
When dealing with local media it is vital to realize that most reporters and editors know little or nothing about aviation in general and even less about general aviation. At the height of the publicity about our battles at SDL one local paper picked a reporter as their “aviation expert” because, as a student pilot, he had more aviation “expertise” than anyone else at the paper! This means that when you are dealing with reporters and editors do not speak in aviation jargon or acronyms unless you clearly explain what each of those terms mean. Do not assume that the reporters and editors know things about aviation that you take for granted. And, most importantly, do not assume that they share your enthusiasm for, and belief in the value of, general aviation. In fact they almost certainly do not, and you will need to convince them that aviation and airports are a good thing for their community.
In addition to working the media, your group should appeal directly to the public. Buy ads in the local media touting the benefits of the local general aviation airport. Have members of your group speak to local civic organizations (they always need interesting speakers) about the benefits of the airport.
An important and effective component of public outreach is holding open houses or “airport days” at the airport. Most people still find aviation and airplanes interesting and exciting. But the public is much more isolated from aviation today than at any time in the last 50 years. When I was young, people could (and did) visit airports just to look at the airplanes and watch them fly. But the last several decades of hijackings and terrorism have necessarily made most airports less accessible to the general public.
Well planned and executed open houses and “airport days” can help to rekindle some of the public’s residual enthusiasm for aviation and bolster public support for airports. When planning such events be sure to highlight the local benefits of the airport such as medical evacuation and public safety flights and the benefits of the airport to the local economy. Having a few cool warbirds on display doesn’t hurt, either!
In my earlier column on this issue I discussed the need for airports to be good neighbors and for pilots to avoid flying in ways that legitimately annoy the non-flying public. Your airport should have a policy for minimizing over flights over noise sensitive areas and for dealing with noise complaints. And these efforts need to be publicized so that both the media and the public know that your airport and the pilots who use it are making an effort to be good neighbors.
The political battle goes hand-in-hand with the public-relations battle since politicians naturally tend to respond to the attitudes of their constituents. If the community loves the airport, so (usually) will the politicians who control the fate of most general aviation airports.
But that is not always true. Because in most areas municipal elections have low voter turnouts, small but dedicated groups of anti-airport activists can and have elected anti-airport candidates to the governing bodies that control public airports.
Your first step in the political battle is to understand who has authority over your airport. Most public airports are governed either directly by an airport authority or indirectly by something like a city council or county commission. Like reporters and editors, most municipal politicians know little about general aviation, so governing bodies such as city councils and county commissions often depend on appointed bodies such as airport advisory and/or transportation commissions to make recommendations about airport matters. In this setup the elected officials make the ultimate decisions but often defer to the recommendations of the advisory commissions.
Needless to say, it is vital that every official, elected or appointed, who has a say in deciding the fate of your airport be airport-knowledgeable and friendly. You should ask candidates for local office where they stand on aviation issues and then you should vote for (and otherwise support) candidates that are general-aviation friendly. Work to get airport supporters appointed to airport advisory and transportation commissions.
Keep a close eye on everything that your local government does that is airport related. In addition to the obvious issues that deal directly with airport operations, closely scrutinize all zoning and development decisions near your airport. The biggest enemy of general aviation airports is incompatible land uses approved in proximity to them.
Get to know your elected officials, the members of your airport and/or transportation commissions and your airport manager and his staff so you know what is going on. Watch the agendas of the meetings of the elected and appointed bodies (usually posted in advance on their Web site) and subscribe to any email or snail-mail lists related to the airport so that you know about potential problems in advance.
If your local government plans to approve development that threatens the future of an airport, let your elected officials know in no uncertain terms that you oppose such development and that you will vote against politicians that allow it.
Another wise political move is to lobby your state legislature to pass tough laws prohibiting incompatible land uses around airports and to strengthen existing laws. Such airport protection laws can give local officials the information and justification they need to turn down incompatible land uses near their airports.
One note of warning: Make sure that you do not violate the laws in your jurisdiction regarding the participation of groups in political activity. You need to be especially careful if your airport support group is organized as a non-profit.
Protecting general aviation airports from those who would close or restrict them requires time and effort. But it also requires money. In addition to buying advertising and organizing pro-airport events you may have to hire consultants and lawyers to help you craft an airport support plan and a legal strategy. That is why it is important to identify and recruit business that have a financial interest in seeing the airport survive and prosper since they are your best candidates for contributing money to the cause.
Our country has a vibrant general aviation community with a bright future. In no other country on this planet can private citizens fly so freely and affordably. But that will only be true if we in the general aviation community are willing to fight hard to keep it that way.