Airport Self Sustainability

Airport Self SustainabilityNaivety. Believe it or not, can be an invaluable tool for entrepreneurs. If you were to ask anyone who has started a business to recount the highs and lows of their first few years, I’m sure many would state, “If I knew it was going to be this hard, I wouldn’t have done it.” This is true regardless of how well one researched and executed their business plan. I’m not a psychologist but healthy levels of naivety might actually protect us from our fears and help drive us forward.

There comes a time in the business lifecycle, however, where naivety should no longer play a role. Airports, one should argue, are businesses and should be operated as such. The historical roles of traditional airport funding are slowly dying and the beating drum rhythmically repeating the verbiage, “But we’ve always done it this way!” should be laid to rest along with the traditional airport funding model. Being naïve is no longer an excuse and accepting the status quo will only accelerate your arrival to the end of the business lifecycle.

The current debate over Aeronautical Use vs. Nonaeronautical Use land and how it relates to your hangar is just a symptom of this naivety and when you peel away the bureaucracy, one will truly see how airport financial self-sustainability, is not even on the FAA’s radar screen.

I attended a statewide airport manager conference within the Midwest a couple months ago. Airport managers from the region, the state’s Bureau of Aeronautics, engineers, consultants and the FAA were all present. My goal was to just listen and gain a first hand perspective as to the safety, security, land use, operations, funding, and compliance issues that airport managers face. It was an informative session and reaffirmed my knowledge of what managers must contend with on a day-to-day and long-term basis.

All of these managers/administrators are good, hardworking people and do their best to work within the BOA and FAA guidelines to ensure safety, security, smooth airport operations, and compliance with grant assurances. But throughout the conference my inner monologue began whispering, then screaming to the point I started looking around to see if others could hear my cry.

URGENCY – there was no sense of urgency as the current culture within our regulatory bodies does not instill or promote this sense within the airport industry. More specifically, this lack of urgency is seen exclusively in the realm of airport funding and self-sustainability. The current airport funding environment is very much like some of the social welfare programs that existed decades ago. There is little or no incentive or tools provided to help airport managers (sponsors) in achieving self-sustainability and negating the need for Federal funds in the first place.

Financial self-sustainability should be the goal of every airport. This is actually a goal outlined in FAA’s grant assurances #24 but this topic was not directly covered even in the discussion related to airport funding at the conference. In a previous editorial piece, I outlined several points that would assist airports in becoming more self-sustaining. One of them suggested that the FAA establish a pilot program empowering a select group of airports to experiment with different business models with the goal of becoming financially self-sustaining. The various business models would give airports the freedom to conflict with or violate grant assurances yet not forfeit grant funding during their transition to self-sustainability as the transition can’t take place overnight.

The FAA has run “sustainability” pilot programs for various airports within the last decade. However, this program was not related to airport business development and financial sustainability. It was related to energy conservation, preservation of wetlands, reducing pollution, etc. In all, there were “Fifty Notable Sustainability Goals” outlined in a report that can be read here (pages 9-11). They are all worthwhile objectives but none addressed financial self-sustainability.

Hangars and the debate over Aeronautical Use vs. Nonaeronautical Use land is just the symptom of a broken culture within the FAA and a representation of a terrible disconnect between the administration and the airports in which it governs. Many airport managers eloquently stated their case in support of relaxing the seldom-enforced, arbitrary rules regarding hangar usage. FAA representatives on site were oddly quiet.

Airport managers and aircraft owners and pilots understand that we need to be flexible when it comes to the rules governing hangar usage. Overregulation by the FAA will curtail private sector investment in airports across the country. Any further effort by the FAA to restrict incidental Nonaeronautical Use is a colossal misallocation of funds and human resources and will actually do more harm to the aviation industry than good. Smaller airports and their managers will suffer the most as they are the ones least empowered by and most reliant upon the FAA to manage and fund their airports and most vulnerable to their punitive actions. It is a shame that the FAA cannot embrace the incredible culture found within the airport community and use that potential energy to market and develop airports further and do so in a more financially independent fashion.

The FAA is a mature organization and can no longer be naive to the needs of our nation’s airports. Its grant assurance policies need to be a living document and be able to change and meet the needs of individual airports and not inhibit an airport’s effort to become financially independent. Airport financial independence should be one of the FAA’s core missions and they should empower airport managers/authorities to fully maximize their resources to obtain it. All regulations that inhibit this mission should be modified or thrown out.