Takeoffs pay off

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Sep. 30--General aviation airports receive millions of dollars a year in federal grants that appear disproportional to their aircraft traffic levels, but they are indispensable to the national airports system, industry officials say.

Critics say general aviation airports siphon too much federal funding from 400 infrastructure-constrained commercial airports.

Supporters, however, say general aviation facilities relieve aircraft traffic at commercial airports, are an economic lifeline for small communities and serve as training and medical evacuation centers.

Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, told the Tulsa World that general aviation airports enable corporate executives to get in and out of small cities and conduct business more efficiently than they could on commercial aircraft.

"General aviation airports are critical to commerce and economic activity in rural Oklahoma and micropolitan Oklahoma," Bird said. "If you went to Ada, Ardmore, Durant, McAlester and Muskogee, their (airport) managers would tell you their airport is a lifeline of commerce. Their biggest businesses use those airports."

Oklahoma has 141 public-use airports serving 8,313 Federal Aviation Administration-certified pilots and 11,469 general aviation aircraft, says the Alliance for Aviation Across America. The alliance is a coalition of more than 4,400 aviation and business professionals and organizations interested in preserving small and rural communities.

AAAA released a nationwide study Tuesday of general aviation's importance to the economy -- partly in response to criticism of general aviation funding.

In a study of federal funding of general aviation and the 28-year-old Airport Improvement Program earlier this month, USA Today found Congress has appropriated $15 billion to 2,834 general aviation airports.

The majority of AIP funding is paid by U.S. airline passengers through a 7.5 percent tax on each ticket as well as a $3.60 fee for each flight, USA Today reported.

Critics, including the airlines and their trade group, the Air Transport Association, say their customers pay for general aviation facilities.

Others see it differently.

Jeff Hough, deputy airports director of engineering and facilities for the Tulsa Airport Authority, said general aviation airports are a piece of the national airports system.

In 2008, Jones Riverside Airport, a general aviation facility at Jenks, had 335,826 aircraft operations -- a landing or takeoff -- twice the combined aircraft operations of Tulsa International Airport and Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, Hough said.

"If we had that traffic here at Tulsa International, we would be saturated and we would be having flight delays," Hough said. "It's a congestion issue, and it's a safety issue. Commercial aircraft are flying at 150 mph. General aviation aircraft are flying at half that speed. It keeps both airports safer by having the aircraft separated.

"General aviation airports provide a number of services to those (airport) systems. You pay into the whole system even though you only benefit from small parts of it."

Mary Smith, director of the aerospace division at SpiritBank and a general aviation pilot, said a public misperception is that general aviation users are "corporate fat cats."

"There are 500 aircraft based at Jones Riverside," Smith said. "Most are small companies. We have the highest per capita number of airports of any state, and that has to do with the oil business. The best way to get in and out of small towns is general aviation."

Dale Williams, airport development manager for the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, said the commission distributes about $13 million a year in federal and state funding to general aviation airports. The FAA disburses directly another $15 million annually to the general aviation airports, he said.

The OAC, Williams said, has an Oklahoma Airports System Plan that identifies and classifies airports according to their role:

--Regional business airports, of which there are 49 in Oklahoma, serve economic centers. OAC's goal is to provide them with 5,000-foot jet-capable runways.

--District airports, which serve piston- and turbo-prop aircraft with 4,000-foot runways.

--Community airports, which serve smaller, single-engine aircraft and agricultural operations.

"General aviation airports in the national airport system can receive up to $150,000 a year," Williams said.

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