Small and medium-sized airports worry they won't have enough money to construct runways, buildings and terminals -- which could lead to longer passenger waits and flight delays -- if Congress slashes funding for a popular federal grant program as President Bush wants.
Congress approved $3.7 billion in grants for the Airport Improvement Program, run by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Bush administration proposes to cut funding by $950 million for the 2007 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, saying $2.75 billion is enough to continue work on projects already under way, and stay focused on reducing congestion in airports and making air travel safer.
The airport industry and House Democrats are trying to reverse the cuts as Congress writes the federal budget, a process that typically lasts into late September.
"I am not cynical enough to think that Congress will take care of this, and I can go play tennis now. We have to make the case," said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America. "Taking a billion dollars of what's available for capital-improvement projects at a time when the system is adding passengers at a very fast clip just doesn't make sense."
His group estimates the country's airports require a total of $14 billion a year -- more than what the grant program provides -- to make air travel safer and smoother for passengers.
In May, 47 House Democrats said in a letter to their colleagues who set federal spending levels that slashing a program that's provided airports large and small billions of dollars since 1982 is shortsighted. They said the Bush plan would change the formula the FAA uses to award yearly grants. Under the proposed revisions, the critics wrote, airports serving more than 10,000 passengers a year could see reductions of as much as 50 percent, and the country's 2,500 tiniest airports could lose the $150,000 each now receives.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey defended the cuts Tuesday, saying that many federal programs must be trimmed to pay for the Iraq war and rebuild the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Besides, Blakey said, 95 percent of the country's airfields are in fine shape, and airports can still receive federal funds through other grant programs. However, those programs don't guarantee a minimum yearly payment.
"There are probably going to be some rehabilitation projects that will have to be deferred, but that is not going to affect either the safety or capacity of our system. I think we are, in fact, exceeding our goal," Blakey said.
Since 2001, the Bush administration has provided "very robust funding" through the grant program, she said. "Some of the smaller airports have had what would be characterized as quite extensive funding."
A total of 3,364 airports receive improvement grants. The money can be used for projects like building and maintaining runways, installing fences and airfield lights, buying weather-observation equipment, and building access roads.
Darryl Jenkins, an aviation consultant, said airports in hundreds of small and medium-sized towns in rural America would be disproportionately hit if the funds are cut because they rely more on the grants for capital projects compared with big airports like New York's Kennedy International, Chicago's O'Hare or Atlanta's Hartsfield.
Smaller communities don't have a large number of airlines operating out of their airports. That means they don't get millions of dollars in fees, landing charges and rents airlines pay metropolitan hubs, Jenkins said.
Smaller airports also don't have the assets to issue bonds and attract private investment like the big airports can.
McNary Field, in Salem, Ore., is one small airport counting on federal support for future expansion.
It has received $10 million since 1970, when Congress set up a forerunner to the Airport Improvement Program, for various projects such as building a taxiway and refurbishing the stormwater-drainage system. That's enticed a number of private and corporate jet operations and the Oregon National Guard's helicopter unit to move there.
Airport Manager Alan Alexander worries he won't be able to lure commercial air service to McNary Field if federal funds dwindle. Under the Bush proposal, the airport risks losing the $150,000 it receives each year.
"We'd be devastated if we don't have access to some federal capital-improvement funding," he said.
Not every airport director is critical of the Bush administration. Cynthia Schultz, director of Great Falls International Airport in Great Falls, Mont., said she can't complain. The Bush administration has given the airport, which serves about 60,000 passengers a year, $35 million in the past three years to level a runway, which has a potentially dangerous dip in one end, Schultz said.
However, other smaller airports aren't as fortunate, she said, adding she supports the Bush administration's efforts to trim funding from a bloated program and to be more accountable to voters. The larger issue, she said, is redistributing the grants more equitably.
"You can spend the money a lot better. We build a lot of billion-dollar runways. And are you gaining a billion dollars worth of capacity? The answer is no," Schultz said. "Shouldn't that billion dollars be spread to a lot of smaller and medium airports instead of the major hubs?"
Rural states such as West Virginia count on their airports for economic development as well, said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. By dangling a modern, efficient airport as a lure, states like his try to get businesses to relocate from congested cities, and create jobs in impoverished communities.
"These small companies we seek to attract are not going to go into an area where the service is going to be cut back," said Rahall, one of the Democrats who signed the letter and is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "This nosedive cut in basic funding spells economic disaster."
An Arab American who has been critical of the war in Iraq, Rahall added, "If (the FAA) were to build airports in Iraq, I am sure they'll get every penny they want."
On the Web:
www.faa.gov/airports_airtraffic/airports/aip/overview/, FAA Web page that explains the Airport Improvement Program.
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