‘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)