‘An ATM shaped like an airport’

Remember that news conference Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had last week about the air transportation system will be a “calamity” because the coming sequester will force the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers?

The Washington Post today has a side of the FAA budget that LaHood didn’t talk about: The side that sends money to small airports with little real reason for existing, including one — it claims — in Minnesota.

But the Post focuses mostly on Lake Murray Airport in Oklahoma which last year got about $1,500 from the FAA for every takeoff and landing.

That’s because of a bill Congress passed in 2000 that created a new “entitlement” program for small airports. The rules: If a field was on the FAA’s official airports list, and if it had sufficient need for infrastructure improvements, there would be money. Up to $150,000, every year.

The money was paid out of a “trust fund” filled by taxes on airline tickets and airplane fuel.

On Capitol Hill, this looked like a master stroke of pork politics, engineered by then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.). His measure carpet-bombed congressional districts with money. In the Senate, the bill won by 65 votes. In the House, it won by 218. (Shuster retired in 2001. He did not return a call for comment about the legislation).

Out in the real world, however, there were problems.

Little airports such as this “need a grant every now and then. Not necessarily every year,” said an FAA official who discussed the program’s flaws on the condition of anonymity. “Now, we have a system that gives ’em all a little money, every year.”

Airport advocates often try to get public owned airports to grab the money because it comes with strings attached: the airport has to stay open or the money has to be paid back.

But there are a few problems with the Post reporting. It lists 88 airports across the country, including the one in Oklahoma, that “have no paying customers and no planes based there.”

It lists Glencoe, MN as one of the airports. But that’s not exactly true. There are 10 aircraft based on the field and the city sells aviation fuel, although it doesn’t sell much. It says the airport has no “paying customers” and that’s a slight flaw in the Post’s methodology since small general aviation airports don’t usually exist for passenger travel.

Several airports in farm country serve as bases for the traveling agricultural crop spraying operations that visit Minnesota farms several times a year.

Still, the airport received $150,000 in 2012, according to the Post. You could pay a few air traffic controllers with that money, the paper figures.

(h/t: Sara Meyer)

  • BJ

    Bud Shuster’s district is now represented by his son Bill Shuster. (Bill Shuster for Congress is former client of mine)

  • Kevin Watterson

    “The parks department does the day-to-day work at Lake Murray. It mows the grass around the 2,500-foot runway. Weed-whacks its endless edges. Sprays Roundup on the weeds that poke up. That adds up to $750,000 a year in maintenance, which the federal money doesn’t cover.”

    I’ll do it for $600,000 a year. Will even purchase my own equipment.

    The misconception about things like this is that they earn votes. They don’t. No one is going to vote for Bud Shuster because he saved a runway in the middle of nowhere. The wrong side of Election Day is littered with legislators who thought their little project for their district bought their ticket for re-election.

  • BJ

    Lake Murray State Park offers over 25 miles and 12,500 acres….

    240 hours per week to only go over every acres once – assume a slim 1 hour per acre of maintenance.

  • Bob Collins

    I see that around here all the time. At a certain local airport, which will go nameless, the grass cutter is out there every day all summer. Even when the grass is brown and dry in August, he’s out there stirring up the dust.

  • Kevin Watterson

    I’m assuming the runway and airport operations don’t cover 12,500 acres, and that they don’t all need to be mowed trim. If they do then we’d need to clear-cut everything within 10 miles of MSP.

  • Ed

    Apparently Glencoe got some use when the aerial photos used by Google were taken. In the aerial imagery there is a plane on the runway and another one on the ramp.

  • Bob Collins

    I’ve flown to Glencoe quite a few times. It’s a favorite spot for the flight school at Flying Cloud to use because it’s a non-towered airport. But they don’t refuel or anything there.