Reliever Airports Looking For Relief

The Metropolitan Airports Commission credits its six so-called reliever airports with infusing the Twin Cities economy with $1.4 billion annually.

His anxiety is echoed throughout the tiny airport terminals scattered across the metro area. A flier advertising a meeting on the new MAC rates at Lake Elmo spells it out: "If you care at all about this airport or your hangar please attend!"

"Tired of the M.A.C.?" asks another posting at the rural landing strip.

Terminal operators like Ashenfelter hope the task force finds new ways of bringing in revenue and helps the airports expand, not reduce, operations. Many want runway extensions and other capital improvements to boost traffic.

"The only way we're going to grow which means more money for MAC is to improve the infrastructure," Ashenfelter said. "That would increase the airport's utilization and you'd sell more fuel, have more maintenance and rent more space."

Each reliever airport is serviced by at least one airport operator who essentially runs the show. The airports earn money from user fees like fuel taxes and hangar rental.

"We don't want to just pile on all the reliever costs on the tenants and operators like Ashenfelter. We're looking at other ways to cover those," Lanners said.

Developing nonaviation businesses on MAC-owned land may be one way to generate more revenue. The agency also looks to what Anoka County did with its airport in Blaine, which is undergoing a $22 million upgrade and expansion. Instead of the MAC financing the capital improvement, the county sold bonds to pay for the bulk of it.

As a rule, small regional airports like public transportation are not self sustaining, said Gary Schmidt, MAC's director of reliever airports.

"Large carriers have enough passengers coming through that the big airports can be self-sustaining," he said. "But relievers historically have been viewed as a benefit because they take operations and a different mix of traffic away from the international airport." Although the Federal Aviation Administration encourages all airports to pay for themselves, the only requirement is that the MAC as a whole is self-sustaining, Schmidt said.

But Northwest Airlines, MAC's largest tenant, has long opposed subsidies for the relievers. In a written, unsigned statement, the struggling airline said it appreciated that the task force was "taking a serious look at the how best to manage the reliever airport system.

"Northwest also appreciates the efforts of the MAC and the local Anoka County community to look at ways to creatively finance further development of the Anoka County/Blaine Airport," the statement continued. "We believe this could be a model for the entire MSP reliever system."

The airline has sued the MAC over the subsidies in the past. Northwest has said it wants the MAC to close two relievers.

"Northwest is in a position today of financial stress and looking for every penny," Schmidt said. "Its position is every penny not spent on relievers could be spent at the international airport. That's where the pressure is."

Fiorillo said he sympathizes with the MAC.

"The MAC has its hands tied with Northwest. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes it's tough," Fiorillo said.

Ashenfelter was less diplomatic. "This last go-around was primarily caused by Northwest going bankrupt and looking for money anywhere they can. Northwest has decided to pick on general aviation," he said.

"I don't think the airline understands how bad the impact would be even if just one or two airports closed," he continued. "What we do really helps their scheduling."

Although Lanners acknowledged Northwest has applied pressure, he said the task force would not be influenced by it.

"We're trying to push those motives aside while we figure this out," he said. "We're trying to determine what would be the best for Minnesota, the general public, business and aviation."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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