Many small towns in Alabama have been struggling economically for the last several decades — our textile industry has relocated overseas; increasing numbers of younger population are moving toward urban centers, and as a result, our Black Belt region has had tough times.
Union Springs (Bullock County) has in many ways even tougher circumstances as it has no interstate, railroad or port or other critical transportation conduit for connection to the rest of the world. However, what we do have is an airport, which becomes an even more critical asset for manufacturers and businesses to even consider locating their facilities here. In fact, airports are the only nationally marketable asset for communities that are at a disadvantage in many other ways.
For example, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company recently flew into our airport to visit a local business within the community, Bonnie Plant Farm, and as a result of that visit invested $40 million dollars in the local business. For many businesses, particularly those based in or operating in rural communities, smaller aircraft are often the only financially viable option, or the only option period, as commercial airline travel can lead to many more hours or even days added to the same business trip.
The fact is that smaller aircraft and community airports are also often utilized for various types of efforts other than just business, especially in Alabama and the Gulf Coast region.
For example, smaller airports and aircraft are used for everything from mosquito control efforts to reduce spread of disease, mapping the coastline following oil spills and bringing in volunteers and supplies following hurricanes. General aviation also supports emergency medical responders, law enforcement, port and border security and firefighter to help protect our communities and their residents. Bullock County citizens also rely on Franklin Field for flight training, agricultural application, tourism, access to the Bullock County Seat, as well as law enforcement and emergency medical services.
In fact, Congresswoman Martha Roby visited Franklin Field in the Spring of this year and commended our efforts in expanding and improving our local airport. These uses, coupled with the economic impact in Alabama, totaling more than $3.1 billion per year, underscore the critical role that our airport and smaller aircraft play in local communities.
Unfortunately, some in Washington are now pushing to remove the air traffic control system from the oversight of Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration. This proposed bill would put air traffic control under a board of directors comprised of private interests and the largest airports who would decide who gets to fly, where, who pays what and how funding is distributed. Under the current structure, elected officials, accountable to the voting public, have oversight of the system to ensure that the community airports like ours can support vital public safety functions, local economic development and provide our small community access to the nation’s air space. But the system that is proposed would be shaped to reflect the priorities of the largest commercial airports and airlines. Under this concentrated power, resources and funding would be diverted to the largest cities and communities like mine, that do not have commercial air service, would suffer the cost of decreased access by private aircraft.
Access to the national aviation system and the network of more than 5,000 smaller airports is absolutely vital to communities. All across our nation, airports like Union Springs serve as a backbone to the local economy, helping to keep our communities afloat and attracting business. We must keep it to that way.
Thomas Main is chairman of the Franklin Field Airport Authority in Union Springs and president of the Alabama General Aviation Alliance.