Oklahoma Airports Face Funding Woes Over FAA Cuts

Feb. 8--Oklahoma's general aviation airports could be underfunded next fiscal year unless Congress steps in and boosts the budget for the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Plan.

The FAA announced heavy budget cuts in its Airport Improvement Plan when it turned in its budget requests Monday. The plan was cut from about $3.5 billion to $2.75 billion. The FAA's budget requests must be approved by Congress.

"It's a tragedy in the making," said Victor Bird, Oklahoma Aeronautics commissioner. "We have nearly 100 federally designated airports that will be affected by this unless Congress bucks it up."

Oklahoma receives about $17.5 million in federal funding for its airports. About $12.5 million of that money goes toward the general aviation entitlement grants for smaller airports. Airports in Oklahoma receive $150,000 each in entitlements each year. The money can either be put toward a project in the same fiscal year or be set aside and saved for a larger project, Bird said.

The money is distributed by the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, which helps airports set priorities for airport improvement projects and budget for them. The agency gets about $3 million in state funds from aviation fuel taxes, aircraft excise taxes and airplane registration fees.

"(Entitlements) have allowed us to do things with development and preservation that we never could have done," Bird said of the entitlement program, which would be done away with under the current budget requests.

The budget cuts "reflect the tough realities" the federal agency is dealing with, said Greg Martin, spokesman for the FAA.

The Airport Improvement Plan is funded by the Aviation Trust Fund, which gets revenue from a 7 percent tax on commercial airline tickets. With more people flying and competition driving the cost of an airline ticket down, the FAA is losing out, Martin said.

"The cost of operations is exceeding the revenue from aviation taxes, and what we have to do is balance out those levels," Martin said.

If the proposed budget is passed, safety and security projects under way will continue to be funded and projects in which letters of intent have been issued also will be funded.

In negotiations for the 2006 budget year, the FAA attempted to cut airport improvement funds by about $500 million and funding was restored by Congress.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said he would support moves to bring in additional funding for smaller airports.

"I always try to personally tend to the improvements of our small airports, such as runway extensions and taxiway extensions," said Inhofe, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "I can tell you there is a direct relationship between the quality of improvements made and the economic development in the communities the airport services."

Long-term improvements at the Ponca City airport have helped the airport get commercial service on Great Lakes Airlines. Without the entitlement program, the airport could see its services reduced.

"It would do a lot," said Don Nuzum, airport manager. "We have a lot of different projects coming up, and it makes a lot of difference in planning for the future."

The airport has about 60,000 takeoffs and landings a year, Nuzum said.