By Marshall Puckett / Co-Founder, New Mexico Aviation and Aerospace Association
Last year was a difficult year for our residents with wildfires. The Little Bear Fire in June, which devoured 44,000 acres of land, damaged more than 200 homes, causing severe water shortages and leaving many people without shelter. Only two weeks earlier, the Gila National Forest Fire became the largest in the state’s history, covering about 400 square miles.
When disasters such as these strike, there are countless community leaders and heroes who donate their time and risk their lives to keep our citizens and communities out of harm’s way.
Along with our area firefighters, the Albuquerque Police Department, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, Lifeguard Helicopters and many of our military trainees donated countless hours and risked their lives to fight these seemingly endless disasters.
While many may not think of it, among the crucial tools that these individuals relied upon during these time of crisis were our area airports.
As just one example, during some of our state’s most recent wildfires, Double Eagle Airport was transformed into a base of operations for pilots working to contain the blaze from the air, protecting lives and property.
The truth is that small aircraft and local airports are an important part of our community infrastructure and are uniquely suited to help public safety and support local communities.
There are many other unseen benefits associated with these airports and aircraft for our local communities as well.
Many small business owners rely on general aviation to allow them to meet with potential customers in multiple locations within a single day, visit areas not readily served by commercial aviation, transport supplies and deliver goods. In fact, 85 percent of businesses that own and operate general aviation aircraft are small- to mid-sized businesses, and these small aircraft are particularly important in rural states like ours.
This activity supports many jobs, including those that fly these planes, repair and service these aircraft, and a very robust, U.S.-based general aviation industry that, all told, accounts for $150 billion in economic activity across the country each year, supporting 1.2 million jobs.
In New Mexico alone, general aviation accounts for $3.1 billion in economic activity annually, and according to the 2009 New Mexico Airport System Plan Update, aviation supports about 48,000 jobs across our state. Not only that, these aircraft and the airports they utilize support many critical services for communities, including medical care, law enforcement, organ and blood transport and flight training.
However, many are still not aware of the critical importance of these aircraft, and the Obama Administration’s recently proposed $100 “user fee” tax on all take-offs and landings for many operators that rely on these aircraft threatens to deal a serious blow to the industry.
This “fee” would function similarly to a toll and would mean a huge administrative burden on the thousands of farms, businesses and groups that rely on these aircraft. It would also require a new bureaucracy within the FAA to collect these taxes. Meanwhile, the existing fuel tax structure is simple to comply with, efficient to administer, fair and proportional to use.
Thankfully, the significance of these community airports and their economic impacts is not lost on our community leaders.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez recently declared September 2012 “New Mexico General Aviation Appreciation Month.” And Mayor Ken Miyagishima of Las Cruces, Mayor Gus Raymond Alborn of Ruidoso and former Mayor Neil Segotta of Raton have joined with more than 115 mayors from across the country in signing a petition to President Obama, urging him to recognize the importance of general aviation and protect the industry from the threat of user fees.
By raising awareness about the immense value of these aircraft and airports as an integral part of the fabric of our community and an important part of our state’s economy, these leaders have helped to protect this critical form of transportation.