If federal officials have their way, Madison’s airport could lose a significant amount of its annual revenue and have additional operating expenses.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration want to reduce the risk to aircraft caused by wildlife by eliminating the city’s practice of renting out land to agricultural producers to grow grain crops.
According to Morris Riggin, manager at Madison Municipal Airport, FAA officials have developed greater concerns about the threat from wildlife to aircraft landing and taking off from airstrips since the Flight 1549 accident in 2009.
Flight 1549, a passenger flight from New York City to Seattle, Wash., had its airliner damaged by multiple Canada geese minutes after the jet lifted off from LaGuardia Airport. The Airbus A320 airliner landed in the Hudson River and the passengers and crew were saved without fatalities and five reported injuries.
“The FAA doesn’t want us to farm the land at the airport because it could be a waterfowl attractant,” Riggin said.
The airport property currently includes about 155 crop acres located southwest, east and northwest of its paved runway. The fields were typically rented to local farmers and planted in recent years with corn and soybeans.
A post-accident investigation performed on Flight 1549 determined that bird remains were found in both turbine engines of the aircraft, causing engine failure. To reduce the threat from wildlife, the FAA proposed that the Madison airport should convert the cropland to grassland.
FAA officials also want Madison to eliminate the wetlands located within the airport’s boundaries.
Madison officials received the latest communication from the FAA in early November.
“(The USDA’s Fish & Wildlife Service) recommended that to reduce wildlife attractants on the airport, certain wetlands be removed, along with a change from crop production to warm seasonal grasses,” said the letter from Laurie J. Suttmeier, an FAA manager in Bismarck, N.D.
Madison officials have pointed out to the FAA that the ag land rentals provided 91 percent of the rental revenue gained through the land rentals and hangar leases. The city airport currently takes in about $39,000 in ag land rent and $3,700 in hangar land rents annually.
The overall annual budget for the Madison airport totals about $103,000. Riggin said that the FAA could make exceptions for economic hardship.
“You take away 38 percent of anybody’s budget and that’s a hardship,” he said.
In addition to losing revenue, if the city converts to grass, FAA rules state that the grass must remain between 6 to 12 inches in height. Riggin estimated that if the city needs to mow that amount of grass about three times each summer, the expense will amount to about $48,000.
By converting to grass, Riggin estimates that the city will need to increase its funding from the current $60,400 to about $147,500.
According to Riggin, city officials will propose that the FAA allow Madison to rent out the land for growing alfalfa, allowing the city to continue to receive ag revenue from the property. Riggin estimated that in converting to alfalfa, the city’s revenue would probably decrease by about $3,000.
“I’d say that’s a fairly good compromise,” Riggin said.
The FAA letter also stated, “Please understand if the City continues to farm crops as intended, there will be a delay in completing the (environmental assessment) and thus in implementing your airport improvement project.”
City officials want to construct a new parallel taxiway and enlarge the airport’s apron during the next several years. The FAA currently provides 90 percent of the funding for that type of construction work. The Madison construction projects would receive about $3.6 million in federal funding.
The FAA’s proposal to eliminate the wetlands in and around the city airport will need the approval of the USFWS.
The current budget sequester under way in the federal government further complicates FAA funding. The sequester’s funding cuts have interrupted the FAA’s financial support, and even larger budget cuts are threatened in the coming months.