Runway
6 min read

Editor’s Note: This article is based on research conducted by Washington, DC-based Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy, which provides industry analysis to aeronautical companies. Author Dr. Mike Jones served as the principal researcher of the study. More recently, Dr. Jones has served for eight years on the Pinehurst (NC) Airport Authority, including as chairman.


New research from the University of Florida has found that approximately 54% of the nearly 5,000 publicly owned airports in the United States are failing to perform as well as they should be doing, mostly due to simple mismanagement. This condition costs local airports an average of $20 million annually in lost economic impact, which extrapolates to about $35 billion annually on the national level.

Some small airports are great to visit, but many are economic ghost towns. What’s worse is that because they’re owned by governments they can linger like zombies for years, without anybody making effort to fix the problems. These airports are missed opportunity as airports should be dynamic; they should be economic engines actively helping towns to grow, to create jobs and businesses, and help young people find careers.

Catalina airport

Some small airports are great to visit, but many are economic ghost towns.

Airports are businesses, and they can be fiercely competitive as they fight for fuel sales and customers. The success of these smaller airports is important both locally and nationally because their total economic contribution is in the range of $100-$150 billion annually.

83% of the public-use airports in the U.S. are owned by cities, towns and counties. In my opinion, many municipal-owned airports don’t perform well because governments have difficulties managing for-profit businesses.

Governments try to provide a basic level of service to everybody in a fair and impartial manner, like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office. Meanwhile, for-profit businesses do the exact opposite, trying to thrill a narrowly-defined group of customers. That kind of target-marketing just isn’t in the DNA of a government agency. They don’t have the organizational structures, the vocabulary, or even the reward systems to work like that. In short, to have a successful airport, we found it needs to be removed as far as possible from traditional government structures and processes.

Runway

To have a successful airport, we found it needs to be removed as far as possible from traditional government structures.

While working on my doctorate at the University of Florida, I examined the management structures of 236 small airports in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Using public data, the airports were classified as either “single-function” or “multi-function” structures. Multi-function organizations were those which lump airport operations inside other departments, such as inside a Department of Public Works or a Parks Department. In the study, 129 airports used the multi-functional model.

In those cases, the “board of directors” usually were the city council or county commissioners. These politicians usually lack a nuanced understanding of airport operations even though they are directly involved with hiring staff, defining budgets, and setting priorities. As a result, politicians ignore the highly technical needs of the airport and focus on other departments which attract more community interest, such as schools, roads, and parks. This degrades and undermines the ability of the airport to make significant contributions back to their community.

I have heard dozens of examples of politicians making perfectly logical decisions which were completely wrong for an airport. A great example is closing the FBO at 5pm, or on public holidays, because all government offices close at 5pm and on public holidays. Another example is forcing the airport to use clumsy fund accounting systems which can’t even produce a profit and loss statement.

The examples of mismanagement abound, and like the ancient torture of “death by a thousand cuts” each mismanaged airport hurts aviation at large. Everybody remembers the tragedy of Meigs Field in Chicago, but that’s just one instance of many. There is an airport in a northern climate that has to beg the highway department for snow removal services.

Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, is the airport where they made Piper airplanes for more than 40 years, but now the new city council intends to sell off the airport because it “costs the town too much.” In Camas, Washington, an aloof Port Authority manages both a marina and an airport and is so uninterested in the airport they actually have refused federal grants. City officials in Watsonville, CA, plan to close a crosswind runway and build 500 homes on the land. In Monroe, NC, a base customer reports that, “The airport manager thinks he has only one customer, and that customer is the city manager.”

A better model, according to the research, is a single function organization chart which is defined by the presence of an independent airport authority, board, or district. Some 91 airports in the study used the single-function organizational structure. I believe that airports run by independent authorities are more likely to be focused on meeting customer requirements, thereby producing greater total economic impact for their community.

My colleagues and I found the data supported our hypotheses. In a simple side-by-side comparison, airports operated by independent authorities generated economic returns twenty times greater than multi-function airports. Even after controlling for population, economics, geography, and airport facilities, the average single-function airport out-performed multi-function airports by more than 60%. This raises the total economic impact of an average airport from about $30 million to over $50 million. In turn, this creates hundreds of extra jobs and millions of dollars in new wages.

LOGG

Airports operated by independent authorities generated economic returns twenty times greater than multi-function airports.

It should be no surprise that better management produces better outcomes. But what’s unique, what’s really new here, is this study actually quantifies the havoc created by an inappropriate organizational chart. It defines the cost of having a boss who either doesn’t care about the business or doesn’t understand the business. Knowing how much money is lost can justify the effort and investment to change the system.

There were a number of secondary findings in the research which are intriguing in their own right:

  • Not all airport authorities perform equally well; about one-quarter were not “active and engaged.” Our team controlled for this phenomenon by profiling twelve specific behaviors which characterize a professional airport authority.
  • Airports with volunteer “pilot advisory boards” showed no statistical difference which would indicate those volunteers are persuading the politicians to make better decisions.
  • Shared or remote airport authorities are a bad idea. If an airport authority manages several airports, the largest airport prospers and the subordinate airports whither.
  • Privately-owned and/or “privatized” airports (where the operations are outsourced to a private company) almost always under-perform.

More research is in the works. We’re hoping to expand the study to include states west of the Mississippi River to enhance the validity of the effects we’ve found. We’re looking to determine if personality factors or leadership styles might have measurable effects, or if high levels of employee engagement might enhance airport success. We’re also considering a study to define criteria which might describe the most successful airport managers.

Small airports are fascinating organizations. From a research perspective they’re marvelous subjects for all sorts of analyses, and it’s odd that nobody’s looking at them. Maybe we can crack that code, and free up some of that $35 billion in lost economic impact and really make a difference to our communities.

Michael Jones
Latest posts by Michael Jones (see all)
44 replies
  1. Keith Rigby
    Keith Rigby says:

    I work at Cumbernauld Airport in Scotlands central belt midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh
    We struggle to be viable although run by one owner and would be very interested in your further investigations and findings
    PPL AND C150 owner and help at airport A/G etc.

    Reply
  2. Terry Spath
    Terry Spath says:

    I live and fly in Montana. I fly a King Air professionally and own a Baron. My experience with airports as a hangar owner leads me to believe that your research is spot on. The Helena airport where I have a hangar is well managed by a single entity. I compare this to a previous airport where I had a hangar. It was managed as one of many and the Helena airport is far more successful.

    Reply
  3. Ed Conrad
    Ed Conrad says:

    Very interesting topic. I am interested in learning more. I have seen this play out in my local area. As a new EAA President in north Florida. How can I lead the group to maximize our impact in our community.

    Ed Conrad
    Cessna 150 Pilot
    Retired Vocational Teacher

    Reply
    • Dr. Mike Jones
      Dr. Mike Jones says:

      Hi Ed, There are many possibilities for a small airport to enhance it’s total economic impact. Start with the simple chores: have an “airport visit day” and open the airport to show people about the activities of the field. Arrange a Young eagles day at the same time. Sponsor a “Wings and Wheels” day with the local car club. You can even have a 5K race around the field. Then, build on your success. Work with schools to sponsor “STEM” activities at the airport; STEM and planes are perfect together. Get a bunch of pilots to reach into their pockets and fund a student pilot scholarship program. Speak at local organizations about the benefits of the airport (I’ve done a zillion Rotary clubs, for example). Head over to Tallahassee and lobby your state legislators for funds to rebuild terminals or add hangars. Finally, work with your county Economic Development people to find businesses which would benefit from proximity to the airport; maybe a manufacturer, or a freight company, or somebody in R&D. It’s a lot of work, and it will never end, but SOMEBODY has to be the salesperson representing your airport to the city, county and state. Email me for more ideas! — Jonesy

      Reply
  4. Steve David
    Steve David says:

    At KPMP, (owned by the FAA with a lease to the city of Pompano) we have a contracted Tower. (With very fine Controllers) There are two primary landlords, Sheltair and Pompano aviation, they are charging ever escalating rent. For example tge hanger for my 182 is over $1,000 per month. There is quite a bit of land for expansion and there is a waitlist for hangars. If the airport were not run in such an exclusive manner, and instead embraced competition we’d see new hangars and more services in short order. I’d be delighted to
    Develop the hangars under a land lease and lease them for less than both current lease holders. The lack of competition however insures a lack of becoming better, and perpetuates the Good Old boy exclusivity…..

    Reply
    • Elton
      Elton says:

      Why don’t you develop some new hangars at PMP? With the hangar rents that you quoted there should be a financial incentive to build. However, if financial conditions warranted I suspect others (including Sheltair) would already have done so which means there must be financial problems not readily visible. I suspect the airport sponsor (owner) is part of the problem by imposing some harsh lease agreement provisions for prospective hangar developers. Do you realize that almost all hangars are only temporarily owned by private developers? After a number of years (determined by the airport sponsor in the airport lease agreement) the ownership of the hangars reverts to the sponsor, usually with zero compensation to the developer. You will have to factor that into your calculations for what you will charge for monthly rent. Would you buy a personal house for $400,000 knowing you were going to give it away after 20 years?

      I looked at an aerial view of the PMP airport on FlightAware. The airport appears to be very land-locked with minimal space available to build additional hangars, so I suspect whatever land is available would be quite expensive to lease.

      You listed two airport businesses, Sheltair and Pompano Aviation, but Pompano Aviation does not even advertise on the free FlightAware website at all, and on the AirNav website it specifically mentions it does not offer tie-downs or transient parking, nor are any other FBO services mentioned on any of its websites that I could locate. It just mentions 24/7 self-serve fueling and no helicopters. Most (larger) airports have FAA-recommended Minimum Operating Standards ordinances in effect that mandate certain services be provided by airport operators serving the public, especially those selling fuel to the public, but this facility does not advertise those services; it’s like this is a private facility selling to the public which is usually at odds with an MOS. In other words, it appears that Sheltair is operating at a significant financial disadvantage compared to its competitor. That’s a sponsor-induced problem.

      Another major handicap for this airport is short runways, not to mention all the noise restrictions notes and weight restriction notes. All these greatly restrict economic opportunity for businesses on this airport. It does have location, location and location in its favor, however, and it’s a very nice airport.

      Reply
  5. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    The municipal airport I use is run by the city. Supposedly the city has the money to move our casino. But doesn’t have the money to repair a closed runway. Which has been closed for 10 years. Let’s talk about mis management….

    Reply
  6. 1200
    1200 says:

    Lots of disagreement. I don’t dispute that city commissions *may* not be skilled in airports, but focus on profits is not the answer. Grants might be refused not because of neglect, but because they don’t want the strings attached- i.e., have plans to redevelop airport land to fill city budgets. At a small local airport near me with a strong GA community: FAA forced closure of constrained crosswind runway by refusing funds, airport had little say in it but were happy to go along so they could develop the land for a profit to the airport and city. They’ve redeveloped the main runway specifically for jets. ALL their decisions are now oriented to making that profit you promote- e.g. still-rarely-seen jet users always come first, in services, hangar opportunities, airport business policies. The airport may eventually turn profitable in the eyes of the city, but by making it a corporate jet port servicing a handful of rich (more than GA!) businesses and people and pushing away the GA community to other, more receptive regional airports. Or, more likely, the rich guys fail to materialize and it dies because the GA that kept it going since the 1930s is gone.

    Biggest determiner in my area of airport diversity and activity- a good airport restaurant. Seriously. Nothing builds goodwill in the community so well. That flat-out kept one local private airport from shutting down from community noise complaints, and is a noticeable draw in all airports with one. That local airport I describe above had one now long gone, probably never to return because the airport/city will always be viewing it as a profit opportunity rather than a basic component of a healthy airport community.

    Reply
    • Pete Lehmann
      Pete Lehmann says:

      I interpreted the assertion regarding placing more focus on profits less as a rigid, all encompassing need to run an airport like an inner city gas station and convenience store, and more in a tone of “more like a for-profit business”. I agree that there needs to be a deliberately managed balance of operating a municipally owned public use airport as the community resource they are, but as he pointed out, with an eye on ensuring that, as does the owner of a small business, ensure that this public resource is operated in a manner which results in a sustained and steady growth. My overarching long term goal for the airport I manage is that we are it evolve over years into a self sustaining, recognized economic treasure for the rest of the City government and community collectively. Without the growth incentives normally associated with the business world, I agree that the local government DNA simply doesn’t offer the programming needed.

      Reply
  7. Pete Lehmann
    Pete Lehmann says:

    I’m literally reading this article as I prepare a presentation I’m going to to provide to the City Council members at their next meeting in an attempt to compel to see the value in ending the limit of 15 hours per week to manage the municipally owned public use airport which I routinely end up putting in 40-50 hours every week to simply maintain the status quo. I’m privileged to have an Airport Advisory Committee which punches so far above their weight, I see them more as an Airport Authority or Commission. I have no ego stake in this game, I am more than willing to delegate any and all authorities they require to say effectively address the dozens of complex airport issues and tasks they are willing to take on.

    That said, the original agreement when I was hired, being the first paid manager in the history of the City’s ownership and operation of the airport, was I’ll start at 15 hours per week, but once I’m able to demonstrate empirical, data-based growth in all the important metrics, revenues, operations, asset base value, use by non-aviation connected community members, and more efficient use of Federal AIP & grant funding, they would be willing to talk about converting me to a full time position.

    Whelp, it was a busy 8 months, but it was well worth the time and effort put in by myself, sure, but to an even greater extent by our dedicated volunteers. The data is irrefutable, I’ve doubled our SRE plow fleet by leveraging the Federal GSA Excess Property Program, I’ve secured a $40,000 mobile office trailer so we finally have an onsite Airport Manager Office which was the first, most difficult step in conduit removing the albatross around the airport’s neck that the “Unattended” designation represents. We increased our fuel revenues by a massive 56% over 2022, and if I can convince the folks at FlightAware that the data is there, they just need to query it for 2022 and 2023, I’ll be able to show a very likely increase in annual airport operations mirroring those fuel sales.

    Suffice to say, this article could not have been more on point for my needs or timely for my purposes. However, I appreciate the executive summary the article represents, but why in the name of Apollo’s left pinkie toe was a link not provided to click through to the actual study report?! I guess I can do some Google-Fu to see what I can find, but I’m a bit flummoxed that a researcher such as the author, someone intrinsically bound to the doctrine of always providing comprehensive references for EVERYTHING, elected to keep us limited to his summary.

    Oh well, I suppose I shall focus on being grateful for the article I got because boy oh boy does he confirm a LOT of statements and claims I’ve made over the last 8 months, and does so in far better terms than I could.

    Reply
    • Rod Smith
      Rod Smith says:

      Hang in there, Pete. The job you took on ain’t easy, but it’s worth doing, for all of us. I may land there someday, I may not. Either way, I am encouraged and grateful. You’ve got friends you haven’t met yet. Keep up the good work.

      Reply
    • Elton
      Elton says:

      That’s an excellent start for you. However, you need to update your increased operations on your airport’s FAA Form 5010 annual inspection report. That’s a very important annual update the airport manager needs to submit directly to the FAA. Look it up online and make some phone calls to make these changes. Companies like FlightAware merely quote the FAA Form 5010 data.

      When working with the FAA and local politicians, I found the best data you can provide is a list of daily operations, including date, time, N#, aircraft make and model, as well as nature of the flight if possible, like training, business-related, personal, absentee landowner, departure points and destinations, etc.. A number of businesses now cater to providing information like this: motioninfo.com and 1200.aero are two that come to mind; they are both excellent and provide 24/7 written records of your airport operations.

      Reply
  8. Levant Tinaz
    Levant Tinaz says:

    Great article Dr. Jones! I’m delighted to see my home airport of CNC3 in Caledon Ontario Canada as the 2nd picture in this article (with caption “…as far as possible from governmental structures”). It is a very successful GA airport, flying club and flight school training pilots, including myself, since 1946 (https://www.bramptonflightcentre.com). It is run by the non-profit flying club. Our airport also has a great restaurant with patio, pilot shop and maintenance centre (authorized Cessna service centre).

    We have many municipally run airports in my province of Ontario and they seem to do alright and still operating after many years so there may be differences in how we operate in Canada that make the GA airports more viable.

    Reply
  9. Alfred Adjokatcher
    Alfred Adjokatcher says:

    These facts have been undeniable for a very long time. I am glad someone did some research to show hard statistics. Very true and why for example the USPS or Amtrak will never make a profit or compare with FedEx or UPS. The study focused on GA airports in the Eastern US, and 236 out of the over 5000 airports nationwide. How about the middle and Western areas of the country? I am curious to learn what research comes out of there. Perhaps, population density was driving the research sample selection for this research. Nevertheless, the facts have always been true. Government is not the best at competitive business.

    Reply
  10. Danny Drew
    Danny Drew says:

    Very good article and as an airport user (I own my hangar on a twenty year land lease) and the last airport I used where I rented a city hangar, I used some of these arguments to try to increase the traffic and benefit to the city/county but suggesting as one did…lower the price of fuel which will increase the traffic and add a restaurant. Combine the two and the city/county will take notice of the increased revenues and traffic. The airport I am based at now, built ten new hangars to reduce the wait list…all were rented a year prior to being built in 45 minutes. We had owners from a nearby state sign leases just to have a place in case they had to move. Sadly, politics equals corruption in most peoples yes today. The airport that we moved from in Texas – just north of Austin – is a very busy training field with a contract tower. Great people but the county is one of two in Texas that charges property taxes to renters of city/county hangars! It has been fought for years to very high court levels. In my protest I was told that I was a “property owner” and that someone had to pay the taxes but when I said “Okay, I am the owner and now I can do anything in the hangar I want!” NO NO NO, you are a renter, to which I replied then I am “NOT a property owner so I don’t have to pay property taxes!”…No, you are a de-facto owner and someone must pay taxes. People put up with this because they need a place so badly.
    Fuel prices! There is a refinery in East Texas that supplies all of the Texas area, basically the Eastern half and Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas. The truck drops fuel at my airport in Oklahoma and then travels up the road about 50 miles and drops from the same truck….the fuel prices are nearly a dollar cheaper up the road. Hello, airport authority…sell for a few pennies less and sell more because people will come in and buy…and that makes the usage look better to the government officials. What am I missing?

    Reply
  11. Thomas Faulhaber
    Thomas Faulhaber says:

    If you’re looking at mismanaged airports in the west please look at La Veta, CO. Beautiful airport destroyed by anti growth tree hugging hippies on the town council. It sits vacant currently

    Reply
  12. Tim
    Tim says:

    1) Give the FAA the money to function (Get out of the forever wars).
    2) The FAA needs to function on all areas of aviation not just the Airlines.
    3) The FAA needs to promote GA and Commercial Aviation like they used too 50 years ago!
    4) Nothing wrong with small airports. There are a lot of good ones.
    5) The problem is that airports that need help don’t get it. They shut them down.

    Reply
    • Oldtimer
      Oldtimer says:

      The FAA in its current state is in no position to help at all. As an organization it is more focused on DEI than ANYTHING ELSE. IF you don’t believe that, go to their website and scroll down to their priorities-

      1) Safety- a word with very generalized meanings that is often used to support that which cannot be supported.

      2)Sustainability- yes- of the FAA with an emphasis on-
      Climate Action Plan
      Aviation Fuel
      EAGLE
      Technologies
      Flight Operations
      Airports
      Noise
      Stories

      3) EQUITY AND JOB CREATION- yes again- for the FAA.

      Please go look at their web site I’m not making any of this up. Ask yourself- how has government demonstrably contributed to the enhancement of any of those listed items or made a positive change to the aviation community at large as you query why the number of controller errors, runway incursions, passenger complaints and bad actors in the industry increases at an alarming rate with every day that goes by.

      Reply
      • Tim
        Tim says:

        Da!, That’s what I’m stating. The FAA needs a major overhaul. You can’t do that when you
        defund an agency. For air traffic control you need to get away from verbal commands over the radio for separation and direction. Even with ADSB, its still a 1950s air traffic control system.
        AI is the wave of the future for ATC. EAGLE is joke! Modern automotive engine conversions have no problems with vapor lock using unleaded fuel, but Lycoming and Continental do.
        Nothing like making new fuel for old technology. Especially when Lycoming is owned by
        Textron. Remember, NASA got us to moon, but with the help of private industry.

        Reply
        • Oldtimer
          Oldtimer says:

          Good points and agree in part – however MORE money is not the answer. Re- directed funding and competent leadership from non-political appointees who ACTUALLY HAVE experience in Air Traffic control (people who actually know the difference in primary and secondary targets and understand 3 dimensional thinking) is needed.

          The same can be said for ALL other divisions within FAA. Leadership and competence from people who have actual hands on, demonstrated, and verifiable COMPETENT experience in civil aviation (instead of the escapees from Andrews AFB or similar ilk who couldn’t get a job at the airlines) is what is needed. Yes- I do actually know what I’m talking about.

          Add to that actual verifiable cost control oversight from interested knowledgeable members of Congress who understand that they too are members of the taxpaying class- not some political hack who has no background in or knowledge of aviation who is shielded from the rest of us.

          At present- there is NO CHANCE of any of that happening so don’t hold your breath – that will only lead to disappointment on the near term horizon.

          Reply
          • Tim
            Tim says:

            We also need new management ideas as listed above along with
            educating the public about the need for small airports and how they
            fit into the transportation system.

      • MikeW
        MikeW says:

        When you add Climate Action Plans to an airport’s function, you will lose the vast majority of rational thinking people. Makes us question the rest of your suggestions.

        Reply
  13. Oldtimer
    Oldtimer says:

    All good comments and worthy of consideration. I believe the first common misnomer is to think that an airport is a business. Airports in and of themselves are not businesses. Airports are developed and funded primarily to attract business to the area OR to make the area more economically viable by providing a basis for another of form of transportation to and from the local area -OR both.

    As pointed out in the article, many airports are overseen by politically appointed people who have absolutely NO idea of what they are overseeing and NO concept of the original intent of the airport. As a result, every hayseed airport authority thinks they are overseeing DFW, JFK and begin to charge accordingly.

    Additionally there is very little “management” and EVEN LESS “leadership” when it comes to containing costs. Why???? Because it’s easier to raise fees, tax the local citizenry a little more and, in some cases, those who oversee have their fingers in the pie and reap the benefits of higher fees which are only beneficial to them.

    And then there is the case of the chain FBO’s charging exorbitant rates for fuel, tie down, and other “services” that in reality don’t exist.

    So what’s the answer?
    First- don’t use a Washington based consulting firm.
    Second, remember the original purpose of the airport- to SERVE the public.
    Third- if the city/county is going to manage the airport, complete transparency on costs- NOT PROFITS and control of fuel sales at prices not to exceed a publicly advertised profit margin.
    Fourth- Clean accessible facilities and
    Fifth- Reputable, locally owned service providers whose rents are guaranteed for 25 years with contracts negotiated at arms length and made available to the public at large.

    Reply
  14. Bill
    Bill says:

    Your study is fatally flawed by its premise. The assumption that the only purpose for an airport is to be an economic engine for the community is so short sighted as to be embarrassing. Most Airport Authorities run the airport as a public service – much like the parks or baseball fields. That’s not only a perfectly acceptable option but in fact the better one for General Aviation. If airports exist to create wealth, GA will die when it is decided that something – anything – else can created wealth better. That’s very dangerous. Public airports should exist as a public service – or a public convenience. That’s our only hope for the continuation of the concept of public airports.

    This is like someone criticizing a car or airplane without knowing what the design parameters were. If you don’t know why something is as it is, criticizing it is arrogant and foolish.

    Reply
    • mickey
      mickey says:

      Weather the airport is an economic engine or a service provider it should, and needs to be, managed as a “for profit” business. If not, the airport will not survive in todays world.

      Reply
  15. Sam
    Sam says:

    The number of replies highlight the frustration of many the volunteers trying to help local airports. Helping our elected local officials see the value is the hard part. Trying to quantify the economic impact is another obstacle. Fuel sales at our airport are a “loss leader”. Fuel station costs outweigh profits.

    Very interested in strategies that have improved small airport viability.

    Been working on this problem for 7 years. So far our officials have been supportive even though we don’t make our costs back.

    Reply
    • Elton
      Elton says:

      How do you describe your airport’s value to your leaders and politicians? Is it the number of gallons of fuel sold, or the profit made from the sale of fuel? How can you call your fuel sales a “loss leader” if that is your primary source of airport revenue and you don’t generate enough other income to offset the losses you accept on your fuel sales?

      Also, attracting more small aircraft with “cheap” subsidized fuel prices does very little to justify future airport growth which should be the goal of any community and airport manager. If you have a basic small airport that accommodates Category A-I (1) airplanes (generally small single and multi engine piston airplanes) and all you do is attract more A-I airplanes you will never show a need for a larger runway that will accommodate Category B-II (2) or C-II (2) airplanes (generally turboprops and jets) that will justify your request for a wider and longer runway.

      The real value an airport brings to any community is that it provides another way to bring economic activity to your area, much like highways and railroads do. Keep good records of all traffic in and out of your airport and relay that to your community leaders. Note the growth in the size of the aircraft utilizing your airport, too; larger aircraft usually mean bigger businesses are visiting, generating more economic impact for the whole community, not just to the actual users of the airport.

      Reply
  16. MikeW
    MikeW says:

    It would be very interesting to know what the 12 specific success behaviors are that the author refers to. Might there be a link to same, or is this proprietary data that needs to be purchased?

    Reply
  17. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    For those looking to find the Report mentioned by Dr. Jones, a simple Google search provided me the power point presentation Dr. Jones used:
    https://www.airplanegeeks.com/2023/11/01/772-managing-small-airports/
    For the most part, his research is fairly accurate and, like many responders noted, one should be careful when ‘broadbrushing’ the industry as a whole. I spent 27 years managing small and large airports (both commercial service and general aviation), and Dr. Jones accurately stated that airport authorities DO a better job managing airport facilities than ‘run of the mill’ local government organizations-the success or failure really depends on the focus on providing a service AND running the facility as an aviation organization. I’ve seen both sides of the story…kudos to Dr. Jones for continuing to bring this issue to the forefront for all (and hopefully local administrators) to see!

    Reply
  18. Exhausted Flyer
    Exhausted Flyer says:

    (Name and location withheld because I still have to work with some of these clowns.)

    Local FBO told me that I couldn’t fuel my own airplane anywhere on the airport (not just on their ramp). FAA (FSDO) paid them a visit and their attitude promptly changed when the FAA offered to revoke their operating certificate because, dudes, that prohibition is illegal, read the FARS. I was self-fueling because I had the Mogas STC and of course there was no Mogas on the field.

    FBO owner was buddy-buddy with the (moderately sized) city, which called in the fire inspector, who told me (in writing) that yes, I could (now) refuel my own airplane on the airport (but not on the FBO’s ramp) BUT I had to use a gas can *specifically* approved by the Boston MA fire marshal. The FBO and the city in question are in Florida . . . and of course, you can buy a Boston approved gas can at any local auto parts store in Florida, right?

    FAA paid a return visit, this time to the city, and they were considerably less polite. They didn’t “offer”, they outright threatened: “How do you guys feel about losing all future federal funding and repaying everything you’ve gotten since 1946 AND maybe losing title to the airport as well? You ARE going to leave this guy alone – or ELSE!!”

    (The airplane in question was a 6 GPH two seater, not an A380, so they weren’t really losing all THAT much revenue by having me do it myself. Their fight was so bitter because the reward to them was so small.)

    The FBO has been through something like five owners since then and I heard their building was condemned recently. I’ve moved to a private grass strip a few miles away and now can do anything I darn well please.

    Reply
  19. Dennis Clarke
    Dennis Clarke says:

    During the months leading up to my election to our airport authority board (KSGJ) election, I conducted a peer review of certain financial and operational metrics of various Florida airports based on published financials. One of my conclusions was that airport managers are averse to using debt to buy and deploy income producing assets, i.e., hangars.

    Debt, properly managed, buys income producing assets, which provides the proceeds to repay the debt. Once the debt->asset->income->debt-service cycle is set in motion, it must be managed properly. Finding the right people with a combination of aviation and financial management acumen is the greatest challenge.

    Reply
  20. Elton
    Elton says:

    The article and comments about small rural airports are wonderful. It’s hard to draw simple solutions for so complex an issue as this but numerous factors were evaluated and I was mostly in agreement. I have one significant disagreement, however. It has been my observation that “privately-owned” FBOs do much better than airport-owned FBOs towards providing what the flying public wants when they fly into these aviation gateways into the communities.

    In my opinion, a major factor that hinders airport growth and excellence is a poor attitude on the part of the airport owners/sponsors, compounded by lack of aviation knowledge and inexperience. Too many politicians and city managers do not understand the importance of their airport assets and as a result their entire communities suffer economically. I’ve seen this play out differently in several cities and it’s a real shame to see so many wasted opportunities. Sometimes a community my only be set back a decade or two, but other times the damage is permanent. I think state aviation agencies must be more proactive in getting the word out to the local governments to understand and manage their aviation assets better.

    There was also a comment made about the length of the runways being such a significant factor in the success or failure of an airport. I couldn’t agree more but this, too, is in need of much more study and consideration by the FAA as well as state agencies. There’s a vicious “Catch 22” cycle on this topic: the FAA won’t build a long runway unless there is already enough traffic there to justify the longer runway, but the traffic will never materialize if the runway is not long enough to enable these larger aircraft to use the airport in the first place. Something needs to be done to remedy this situation. This topic stunted our airport’s growth for a total of about 25 years as we worked our way through three separate lengthening projects.

    I contend our national airports system should do a better job connecting our smaller towns and cities to the national system with larger airplanes and longer runways than are now predicated. Without adequate airport infrastructure in rural areas, progress and growth will continue to elude these areas and small towns will just continue to shrink. We’ve grown our airport to 6,000′ and host numerous large airplanes. Our economy feels the effects of this, too.

    Reply
  21. Robert Bryant
    Robert Bryant says:

    As an airport manager (entering my 36th year in the profession), allow me to chime in. I appreciate the passion the general aviation community has for its local airport. Believe it or not, airport manager’s typically share in that same passion. And I believe, like myself, the airport manager wants to provide those services and facilities so desired and expected from the general aviation community. But one thing that I’ve learned throughout my career, that one constant, is passion often blinds the economic realities of managing, operating, maintaining, and providing those services and facilities so desired and expected from the general aviation community. Let me offer a recent example.

    My airport has a T-Hangar Waiting List with 64 names. In 2017, the airport sponsor provided general fund resources (taxpayer’s money) that financed the construction of a new 9-Unit T-Hangar building at a “turn-key” project cost of $567,057 (the equivalent of $63,006 per Unit). Note about the project, the 9-Unit T-Hangar building was constructed over an existing paved apron so there were no costs associated with the construction of taxilanes of aprons adjacent to each Unit. The $567,057 was exclusive to the 9-Unit T-Hangar building. Beginning in 2022 demand for additional t-hangars encouraged the airport sponsor to seek competitive bids for the construction of a second 9-Unit T-Hangar building identical to the 2017 building. One bid was received at $1,698,000 (for the identical building built in 2017). My jaw fell to the floor when the bid was read aloud as I said to myself there was NO WAY that the airport sponsor would spend the equivalent of $170,000 of taxpayer’s money so 9 residents (stereotype as being rich enough to own an airplane) out of a county population of 250,000 could have a garage to park their airplane (harsh remark, but true). So, we repackaged the bid and separated the concrete foundation from the purchase and construction of the T-Hangar building and rebid the project in early 2023. Bids were received and an award was made at $787,890 (since then 2 Change Order have added $97,000 to the total cost).

    The condition placed upon the use of Taxpayer’s general fund resources that paid the $885,000 cost of the New 9-Unit T-Hangar building was that there would be a return on investment within 15-years at 4% interest. Using a simple EXCEL loan amortization schedule, a 15-year return of investment required a “minimum” rental fee a $727 per Unit, per month. An added $50 a month utility (electric) and routine maintenance fee along with a $30 a month long-term depreciation fee was added for a rental fee of $800 per Unit, per month. We ran through the entire T-Hangar Waiting List of 64 names before we found our 9 applicants willing to pay $800 per month for a New T-Hangar. We won’t begin to see a profit off these new 9 T-Hangars until 2,039 (and that if we’re guarantied 100% occupancy).

    The harsh reality is those economic realities of managing, operating, maintaining, and providing those services and facilities so desired and expected from the general aviation community at a general aviation airport are not cheap. The costs associated with maintaining grass mowing, paved surfaces and markings, airfield electrical, building maintenance and utilities, salaries, insurance, the list goes on, is not cheap. Even the simplest annual operating budget at a single runway (< 5,500') can cost well above $500,000 to $1M a year. And we haven't even included that 10% local share requirement should the airport sponsor choose to accept an FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant intended for eligible airport construction.

    Feel free to critic everything that I've mentioned, but this is the harsh reality of operating and maintaining a general aviation airport.

    Reply
  22. Bruce
    Bruce says:

    Fantastic insights presented here! The perception of cost to benefit (financial or otherwise) is what is key to those that are in positions to either make the rain, or make the desert. The goal as I see it, is to dialogue with the powers that be at our local airports to educate them of the importance of small aircraft GA operations, and not just focus on the for-profit operations of the jet and turboprop GA. Yes, for sure, the FAA, our state aviation departments, the pilot organizations that we belong to, and the Garmins that we pay the big bucks to, should be spearheading small aircraft GA airport development. Maybe some folks do, but it is obvious that they’re not doing enough in some cases, or anything at all for whatever reasons. The report from which this article was generated could maybe serve as a hub for educating our local officials.

    Bruce Baer

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *