By JESSICA MASULLI REYES
Local aviation enthusiasts say that the recent sale of Newton Airport to Public Service Electric & Gas highlights the national trend of small airports shutting down.
The number of public use and general aviation airports in New Jersey has dropped from 82 in 1950 to 44 today, according to the state Department of Transportation. The sale of Newton Airport, located on Stickles Pond Road in Andover Township, makes it the latest airport to close, leaving Sussex County with three airports — Trinca in Green, Aeroflex-Andover in Andover and Sussex Airport in Wantage — according to the state.
Barry Landy, a chief flight instructor at the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, has seen this trend firsthand.
“Well, I’ve been in this business for 42 years, and I’ve seen about 42 airports, just in New Jersey, close,” Landy said.
While it is difficult to obtain concrete numbers as to how many airports have closed in this area, local pilots cited the Budd Lake Airfield and Flanders Valley Airport, both in Mount Olive, as ones that have disappeared, as well as others in Hanover, North Brunswick and beyond.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which advocates against the closure of airports, said this trend is disturbing, especially since in New Jersey there are far more privately owned, publicly used airports, which are more susceptible to closure than publicly owned airports.
“You’ve got a lot of privately owned airports that have done a great job serving the needs of the aviation community (in New Jersey),” said Greg Pecoraro, AOPA vice president for airports and state affairs. “We are concerned that every year it seems like one or two drop out of service.”
Largest sale in years
PSE&G, a power company that supplies nearly three-quarters of New Jersey residents, bought the Newton Airport in December for $3.5 million to use for the storage and construction of pieces of the new 500,000-volt transmission line that is planned to run from Susquehanna in Pennsylvania to Roseland in Essex County.
Cynthia DeCristofaro, a broker associate with Weichert Realtors Sparta, was the selling agent for this sale, which is one of the largest recorded sales in Sussex County in several years. DeCristofaro is a former Realtor of the year, has won numerous other awards and has worked at Weichert Realtors Sparta for 27 years.
“We are grateful that (the sale) happened before the end of the year for all parties,” DeCristofaro said.
Since the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line will run through six Sussex County municipalities, George Sous, manager of transmission outreach, said the 96-acre Newton Airport is an ideal location for storing steel and other
hardware that will be used to construct 200-foot-tall towers that will replace existing 90-foot towers built in the 1920s. Helicopters will move the partially assembled towers from the airport to environmentally sensitive areas and locations that are challenging to access.
Local pilots hope that when this project is complete in 2015, PSE&G would consider returning the property to a public-use airport. Sous said PSE&G has not decided that yet.
“There is no plan for what we are going to do once we are done with the construction,” Sous said, adding that PSE&G is “focusing on the task at hand.”
He said pilots or others with questions about the project could contact a hotline at 888-771-7734.
The airport, which was privately owned by RRL Group, reported that for the 12-month period ending in January 2010, there was a daily average of 29 aircraft operations at the airport, according to Airnav.com.
More recent data is not available, but users of the airport and neighbors said it received little traffic in recent years. Joshua Weinstein, a Green resident and instructor at Essex County Airport, said over the years he and Landy have used the Newton Airport for emergency training and simple landings for students.
“It’s a nice long runway for our purposes, and it’s generally pretty well maintained,” Landy said.
They will now have to find an alternate airport for training, which may be difficult considering Aeroflex-Andover has a shorter runway and is often busy on weekends, while Trinca has a grass strip that is not ideal for that purpose.
“Newton is an important place, but its not heavily utilized,” Weinstein said. “(The issue is) when these close, they do not come back.”
Gabor Kiss, a pilot from Long Valley, said the closure does not pose a major concern for him. He said that the Aeroflex-Andover Airport, less than five miles away, can be used instead.
“In the case of Newton and Andover, I personally am not that upset,” he said. “What is worrying is when you have airports closing that are far from the nearest airport.”
Weinstein said he used Newton Airport often, but recently only saw smaller ultralight aircrafts stored there. The airport had an asphalt runway, but did not provide fuel services or lights for night operation.
“It will be sorely missed, and I’m really hopeful that PSE&G returns it to an airport status when they are finished with it,” Weinstein said.
Reasons for closing
Pecoraro said that it is not uncommon to hear of privately owned, public-use airports closing, mainly due to the financial gains or business decisions that can come from selling the land for other purposes. He said New Jersey has significantly more privately owned, public-use airports than other states, and therefore may be seeing a higher number of closures.
“We, of course, as an organization that represents individual pilots and owners, are interested to see them stay open,” Pecoraro said.
Weinstein said sometimes private airports are sold for the land.
“They can sell off 100 acres of airport land and turn it into 200 condos, and that makes a lot of financial sense in the near-term to pull in all that money, but there have been instances where residents have wanted to get rid of the airport (for another use), but then they realize it increases traffic and the strain (on the area),” Weinstein said.
Weinstein said the public sometimes does not realize “all the hidden benefits” to having an airport in the community. These airports not only serve pilots, but also help with aerial firefighting, law enforcement, search-and-rescue operations, and airlifts to hospitals.
“People tend to forget about all that,” Weinstein said.
Landy said airports also hire local residents for jobs, draw people to the area and aid local businesses. Also, the pilots who use small airports often go on to be pilots working for airlines and for the military.
“They all don’t have to be LaGuardia or Newark or Kennedy; the smaller airports are aiding the local businesses,” Landy said. “There is tremendous long-term economic benefit to having a local airport.”
There is sometimes a perception that living near an airport is noisy and disturbing, but Weinstein said these small airports are not like being near major airports like Newark Liberty International Airport.
“A lot of people think of (airports) as nuisances, but it is a lot more than that,” Kiss said. ” It has a lot of value that people don’t see right away.”
Kiss said there is also immense personal satisfaction that can come from being part of a flying club and using local airports. Kiss’ son became involved with the Environmental Aircraft Association Young Eagles program that got his son into flying.
“Flying has been a really terrific thing for me, personally,” Kiss said. “If it takes, it can have a terrifically positive (influence) on a kid. My son got really excited about flying, and it motivated him through middle school and high school and now at MIT.”
Combating the trend
With these benefits, local pilots and larger organizations like the AOPA advocate against closures and work with local officials to keep airports in operation. Weinstein and Kiss are Airport Support Network advocates for Trinca Airport, which means that they work with Green to make sure Trinca stays open as a publicly owned, public-use airport. Trinca was originally privately owned, but was purchased by the township several years ago.
Airports also try to work with the public, when possible, to keep relationships good. Landy explained that at Essex County Airport, there are special noise abatement procedures in place, but when complaints arise, they work with neighbors on solutions.
“People should also be made aware that the AOPA and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) are dedicated to making the public happy,” Weinstein said.
Pecoraro said another way to make sure these airports stay open is through the federal system of airports, which gives federal funding to airports. In return, an airport is obliged to stay as an airport for at least 20 years.
“We work very hard, when we can, at airports to encourage them to stay open, but that is easier to do when they are first publicly owned and part of the system,” Pecoraro said.