GET INVOLVED -CALPILOTS Knowledgebase Series

Austin Wiswell

This is the first of several articles, probably only a few actually, for the CALPILOTS newsletter that your leadership asked me to write. This honor comes to me for being a relatively outspoken General Aviation advocate while serving for five years, until my retirement in December 2005, as the State of California?s aviation honcho and guru. I was Chief of the Aeronautics Division within the Department of Transportation (aka Caltrans). As such, I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of how to, and how not to operate a public-owned, public-use General Aviation airport ? 224 of them. I felt the thirty commercial service airports under state oversight did fairly well at operating themselves. But G.A. airports ? whew! There are three things that have had, and will always have, unfavorable, adverse effect on airports ? especially General Aviation airports. First is the encroachment of incompatible land uses outside the airport fence. That will be the sole subject of a later article in the CPA newsletter. The second ?threat? to General Aviation airports is the lack of sufficient financial assistance, from the federal government as well as the state, to improve the operational safety, increase the individual airport capabilities, and enhance the overall system capacity of the 224 G.A. airports in California. These all, no matter their size, or number of based aircraft, level of daily operations, or location, are each nodes of a vital and viable air transportation system in the state, and in the nation. And they will become more important to, and integral to the future air transportation system with the advent of very light jets, VLJs, and air taxi services, and Regional Jet use into smaller communities. But that is the topic of a future article. Now, I want to opine on the single, most destructive threat to the continued operation of General Aviation airports: the lack of productive, constructive, cooperative, collaborative involvement in airport operation by the pilots using the airport. In the oft quoted words of Pogo: We have met the enemy and they are us!

All too often the ownership of a General Aviation airport, the local city or county, is seen by the pilots as the enemy. There is usually an Us versus Them tension that is total non-productive and not at all constructive. Try this attitude on for size. Pilots based at the local General Aviation airport are shareholders, as regards where their hangar and tie down rents are spent, as well as stakeholders in adequately maintaining and then improving the airport?s operational safety, capabilities, and capacity. Capacity is the FAA word de jour for making airports more useable. As such, pilots need to get involved in the Master Planning activities; the annual operating budget development and its execution; and the federal and state capital improvement programs that offer grant aid funding for meaningful infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects. Part of this involvement requires getting on civil speaking terms with the city or county administrative structure that holds the future of the airport in their hands. You could be their best friend because you care about the airport because you use the airport. About half of the 224 public-use General Aviation airports in California do not have on site airport management. These airports are noted in pilot guides as ?unattended.? And they are unattended by over worked, disinterested Public Works Directors, Planning Department Directors, Facilities Directors, even Parks and Recreation Department chiefs. If they are attended on a daily, or near daily basis it is often by a single, underpaid ?Airport Manager? or ?Ops Supervisor.?

You, the local based pilot, by default, are the eyes and ears of the airport to the city or county administrative structure ? and you are the brains of how the airport is being administered and how it should grow. Get involved, be persistent – and be patient. Form a real ?advisory? group that provides useful and helpful advice, not just complaints and threats. Attend, as often as you can, meeting of groups, pro and con, that concern the airport. And report back to those who couldn?t, or wouldn?t attend. Visit, on an established regular basis, the City Council member or county Board of Supervisors member in whose district the local airport lies. Chew the fat with them on how-goes-it at the airport. And don?t just bring them problems; bring solutions for problems you identify. And, visit with the City Manager and the County?s Chief Administrative or Executive Officer, if at all possible, at the same time as you chat with the City Council or Board of Supervisors member. That is good protocol. Commit to work with the city or county administrative structure to better, and more safely operate the airport, get maintenance done, and improvements initiated.

Usually the only time when the airport?s administrative structure sees and hears from pilots is when rents are to be increased. Rents are increased for a very good reason, and justifiable purpose: it costs more and more money to operate a public-owned, public-use General Aviation airport. For one thing, that former World War Two facility has aged sixty or so years and needs more maintenance and upgrading. And, cost of materials and labor keeps increasing. Liability insurance costs a lot, and increases each year. An airport, especially a General Aviation airport is not a right, it is a privilege. By the same token, use of it is a privilege, not a right.

Get involved productively, constructively, cooperatively, and collaboratively. Here?s another view to try on for size: If you snooze, you lose.

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