Inside the Fence

A combination of forces may help to redefine GA airports ...

Professor James Smith of the American Public University System is in the final stages of a study intended to analyze and highlight the role that general aviation airports often play in disaster management.

His efforts come at the same time when FAA’s acting Associate Administrator for Airports Kate Lang has been calling for a rethinking of GA airports and how they are categorized, particularly as it relates to funding.

The two forces have yet to converge, but it’s logical that Professor Smith may be leading the way for similar efforts, which in time could serve to make higher profile the role the GA airport plays locally. Such efforts could also in time serve to assist an FAA rethink of GA facilities. It’s not all about number of ops, says Lang.

One preliminary result Smith has found is that while airport operations are often involved in disaster relief planning, airports are not.

He comments, “If you needed any role by air in a disaster, your GA airport would suddenly become a critical resource. I felt they were being overlooked; they weren’t being built into plans and their potential needed to be documented.”

Two key components of Smith’s surveying process have been a survey of some 331 airports, followed up by site visits to some ten airports to see firsthand what’s what.

Questions on the survey include: What have you been involved in historically in terms of disaster events? What roles did you play? Are you willing to participate? Are you actively seeking a role in disasters? “There’s a real difference between being willing and actively seeking,” says Smith. “It showed up in the results.

“A purpose of the study is to get people to look at airports as assets that need to be used wisely in a coordinated way. The bigger the disaster the greater the need for coordination — Katrina showed that big time.”

Smith is now embarking on the third part of his research, which will look at states that have some level of planning that deals with intersecting aviation and disaster response.

“This is a very short list of states,” relates Smith. “There are six in the study.” So far, his studies show that Florida and Washington have extensive plans, and Louisianna is a “work in progress”. Texas, he says, has an “excellent” organizational plan for operations, but leaves out airports. “It coordinates aviation operations without ever mentioning airports, which I think is strange. Airports are as much a player as an Air National Guard air wing or a helicopter company is.

“People tell me, we can operate out of a high school football field. Well, maybe you can, but why not operate out of an airport that has everything already there? It’s like camping out versus staying at the Hilton.

“I’d like to see an expansion of the role of the state aviation offices to enable wiser use of airports in disasters. This means there has to be some kind of funding found.”

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