Ohio’s 97 general aviation airports will need more than $500 million over the next 20 years to maintain safe and efficient levels of operation, according to a study released by the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Aviation supporters are optimistic that an increase in state spending will survive the current state budget process and allow Ohio’s airports to keep operating safely and effectively.
The Federal Aviation Administration pays a significant portion, typically 90%, of the cost of maintaining the infrastructure of these smaller airfields, including Burke Lakefront Airport, Cuyahoga County Airport and Lorain County Airport. Nonetheless, the cities, counties and quasi-public airport authorities that operate the landing fields struggle to find the local matching money the federal government requires. Airport operators, the businesses on airport grounds and private pilots who use these fields have never been able to convince the state to treat airports like highways and take a financial role in maintaining this infrastructure as other state governments have.
The Ohio Department of Transportation has allocated less than $1 million a year to airport improvements, and the Kasich administration, for fiscal 2016, budgeted $620,000. But the House — unexpectedly to many observers — bumped that up to $6 million while the Senate version of the budget trimmed that back to $3.4 million.
A final number is up in the air until the politicians do their horse trading and budget compromising in time for the governor to sign by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We have gotten strong support from the House, especially Rep. (Rick) Perales, and the majority leader and now the Senate has put in money,” said Terry Slaybaugh, director of aviation for the city of Dayton, who oversees both the Dayton International Airport and a general aviation field, the Dayton Wright Brothers Airport. “It would be a good start to a program.”
Slaybaugh is a former president of the Ohio Aviation Association, a nonprofit that works for aviation safety and airport improvement.
Inclusion in the next biennial budget likely would move ahead legislation to make a larger allocation for airport improvements permanent.
Rep. Rick Perales, a Republican who represents part of Greene County near Dayton, is sponsoring a bill in the House that would create a dedicated revenue stream to be used for improving airports and promoting economic development in the aerospace and aviation industry. The bill would tax aviation fuel like gasoline through an excise tax. Currently, aviation fuel purchasers pay a sales tax, which goes into the general fund.
“Our airports are currently in dire need of maintenance and improvements,” Perales said in February when he introduced HB 32. “This bill will not result in a tax increase, but will simply relocate revenue received from aviation fuel from the General Revenue Fund.”
Perales said the sale of aviation fuel generates between $14 million and $16 million a year in sales taxes, and the excise tax created by his bill would not raise that amount. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by state Sen. Bob Beagle, a Republican whose district includes parts of Dayton and surrounding counties.
The airport study found that the state’s general aviation airports will need nearly $460 million over the next 20 years to upgrade and maintain the pavement of their runways. Another $56 million will be needed to purchase and maintain land beyond the ends of runways to meet FAA-mandated safety requirements.
Another part of the state-commissioned study focuses on and drills down to county-level economic development. The economic impact section reports that Ohio’s general aviation airports and the visitor-related and construction activity on airport grounds account for more than 123,000 jobs and a $4.2 billion payroll.
The study also estimated that because of their role in supporting emergency medical transport, pilot training, crop dusting and utility inspections as well as business travel, these general aviation airports have a $13.3 billion economic impact.
The roads less traveled
Garry Swanson believes maintaining the small airports is an important investment.
Swanson is president and CEO of Thermotion LLC, a Mentor manufacturer of tachometers and other speed sensing equipment for industrial applications.
The company has fewer than two dozen employees. Swanson considers Willoughby Lost Nation Airport an important asset to his business. That’s especially so since United Airlines’ cutbacks at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Business trips that used to be day trips became overnight stays because of more cumbersome travel itineraries.
But with Lost Nation nearby, he has an alternative. “I use the airport, half my employees use the airport,” said Swanson, who is a pilot and rents planes for trips of 450 miles or fewer. “We view it as a pretty important part of what we do.” “You have people saying, ‘Close down those little airports. All they do is suck up money,’ ” Swanson said. “What non-fliers don’t understand is that they separate traffic.” Swanson likened it to having 25-mile-an-hour traffic and 70-mile-an-hour traffic using the same roads and freeway interchanges. “Do you really want planes like I fly, doing 90 knots on the approach and commercial airliners in the same section of air doing 150 knots?” he asked. “It’s not a good thing.” Swanson believes that people don’t fully understand the value of these airports, many of which date back 50 years, when Gov. James Rhodes wanted an airport in every county as part of his economic development strategy, believing that businesses will want to locate near good air facilities. “A customer of ours is Cessna (Aircraft Co.) in Wichita, Kansas,” he said. “We sent four of our engineers out there and we chartered a twin-engine airplane for that. That costs us about $3,000, but if you multiply four guys by four airline tickets, by four hotel rooms, by extra meals, by being on the road an extra day, it made sense. One less day on the road is always a happy event.”