When Crystal city officials look across the green and open expanse of the Crystal Airport, they visualize new homes, businesses and a park - no more planes taking off and landing.
But to small-plane aviators and flight-training companies that fly in and out of that hub, it's still an important gateway to the sky that needs to stay in service - even though flight numbers are declining.
"There isn't any other place that is convenient for me to fly from,'' said Kevin Rebman, a small-plane pilot from Maple Grove.
As the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) plans for the future of all six metro-area reliever airports, Crystal officials are seizing the opportunity to renew a 20-year campaign to close the Crystal Airport and put the land to other uses.
"That is very valuable land that could be used for a variety of things beyond the airport,'' Crystal Mayor ReNae Bowman said.
Proposals for the airport, on Hwy. 81 west of Hwy. 100, will be open to public discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday at Crystal City Hall.
The Crystal Airport was added to the MAC reliever system in the late 1940s. Used by recreational and business fliers and as a training location for student pilots, the airport saw 62,718 takeoffs and landings in 2006.
That's a 66 percent drop since 1990 and almost a 10 percent drop in operations between 2005 and 2006, according to Gary Schmidt, MAC director of the reliever system. In recent years, two of the airport's three flight schools have closed, and there are now about 250 planes based there - a number down 23 percent since 1995.
Closing the airport was one option the MAC considered in a recent review of metro-area reliever airports. The review came after Northwest Airlines objected to using fees from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to help pay for the small airports. Now the MAC proposes to raise fees at the reliever airports and is preparing to make other changes that will cut costs.
At Crystal Airport, the MAC proposes to take one or two runways out of use to reduce maintenance costs and free up property for new non-airport related businesses whose lease payments will help pay for airport operations.
Plans will be finalized in the next few months.
``Our goal is get the MAC to see the wisdom in not keeping the airport open,'' said Patrick Peters, director of community development for the city of Crystal. "The first step is to cease operations. Then at some point it will be a regional effort to help define a master plan ... as to what can and should go there.''
Schmidt said there are several reasons for the decline in use at Crystal Airport. When MAC opened a new hangar area at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport in the mid-1990s, some of the most active pilots switched, he said.
And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, airspace over the Crystal Airport was restricted for six months because of its close location to downtown Minneapolis.
Flight schools have lost business because universities and colleges now offer flight training. And high fuel prices have dramatically reduced traffic.
But the MAC has not found a good reason to close Crystal Airport, Schmidt said. "We took a hard look at it. The conclusion we came to is that it takes an exceptionally long time to close it, and there is no benefit to the airports commission and aviation community to do that.''
Although Crystal Airport is the least busy of the six metro reliever airports, it is still among the 10 busiest airports in the state and sending its traffic elsewhere would put a burden on other communities, Schmidt said.
Even if the MAC wanted to close the airport, it could take 10 years or more because the FAA would have to approve such a move and current users would have to be relocated, Schmidt said. The MAC has more important issues to focus on, he added.
Chris Cape, operations manager for Thunderbird Aviation, said his firm does not agree with the city. "We need it to be in business.''
Peters said the declining use of the airport calls into question the public investment in it. He contends that Crystal Airport flights could be handled at other airports inside or outside the metro area.
Whether it takes 10, 20 or 30 years, "the right thing to do is to close that airport,'' Bowman said.
Laurie Blake - 612-673-1711
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