Airports: Tiny Iowa airports take off with millions in FAA grants

Airports: Tiny Iowa airports take off with millions in FAA grants Dozens of municipal airports in Iowa have received millions of dollars in federal grants for upgrades and repairs, even though most are used primarily by private pilots and businesses, a Des Moines Register analysis has found. Airports across the state have received more than $76.6 million in airport improvement grants since 2007 — about 42 percent of which has gone to small airports without commercial airline service that process fewer than 50 takeoffs and landings per day, according to federal records and data from Houston company FlightAware. The findings come at a time when Congress is debating whether the tax structure that funds most Federal Aviation Administration programs should be changed to shift more of the burden to owners and operators of small aircraft. The Iowa Department of Transportation is also preparing to release a study this month showing that the state's 103 small, noncommercial airports contribute more than $187 million to Iowa's economy. Some policy analysts have said the use of airport grants on tiny, specialized facilities raises a question about government spending: How much public money should be used to support infrastructure that much of the general public does not use?

Critics, boosters spar over benefits of grants

Critics, including the airline industry, have argued that commercial passengers have paid billions for upgrades to small airports that they will probably never patronize. Airport Improvement Program grants, which are processed by the Federal Aviation Administration, are funded mostly by taxes on consumer plane tickets, cargo waybills, fuel taxes, and other goods and services related to aviation. "I would say that ... they're not getting much return on that investment," said Bob Poole, director of transportation policy at the nonpartisan Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles analyst. "Why stick airline passengers with the bill?" Boosters of the small airports, however, said the facilities create jobs, strengthen local economies and provide infrastructure for services such as disaster relief and medical transport. "If all the business flying in the United States went away, you would still need these airports," said Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which lobbies for small aviators in Washington, D.C.

Businesses utilize smaller airfields

Among the airports that have received the grants is Guthrie County Regional Airport, which was given nearly $700,000 to build a hangar and make other improvements. In the last year, three of four registered flights coming through that airport have been planes tied to an insurance marketing company in nearby Panora. Roger McCarty is the founder of Brokers International Ltd., the primary patron of the regional airport in Guthrie County. He said his company uses the airport so often that it paid to build its own hangar there, to store two of the four planes it keeps on site. Brokers International employs three full-time pilots, McCarty said. FlightAware records show its planes accounted for three of every four registered flights taking off or landing at the Guthrie County airport within the last year. "I'd hate to think if we didn't have" the airport, "it's really great for our company," McCarty said from Arizona last week, as he planned to rendezvous with a pilot to take him back to Guthrie County. "We have so many agents in small towns across the country ... this way, we can fly right in and right out." In West Union, which received $516,000 in grants, more than half of the registered flights processed through the airport were operated by a South Dakota company. The Lamoni Municipal Airport in south-central Iowa has received more than $563,000 since 2007, despite handling 49 registered flights during the last year. "Some people come in for the local livestock sale," Lamoni airport manager Royce Diveley said. He said the primary clients of the facility are small general aviation companies that shuttle people into the county for business, often at nearby Graceland University.

State prepares study touting jobs created

The airport usage data provided by FlightAware includes only flights that have registered instrument-based flight plans with air traffic controllers. State officials said the majority of small aviators, such as crop sprayers and flight trainers, do not have to file such plans. State transportation officials are preparing to release a study estimating that Iowa's small airports create more than 2,200 jobs — from maintenance workers to flight trainers — and contribute more than $187 million to the economy, said Tim McClung, planning and outreach manager for the state transportation department's Office of Aviation. When floods ravaged eastern Iowa last year, small aircraft were used to shuttle patients and nurses to hospitals, transport supplies and survey damage, McClung said. Local businesses also count on the facilities to quickly arrange travel between outposts far from commercial hub airports.

Download: List of grants to Iowa airports

Click here for a list of Iowa airport grants (Excel spreadsheet file)

Top grant recipients

The Des Moines Register used data from the Houston company FlightAware to examine all the flight plans registered at five rural Iowa airports since May 2008: Belle Plaine, Fort Madison, Guthrie County, Lamoni and West Union. The airports were selected because they received among the highest grant allocations per number of takeoffs and landings since 2007, according to federal grant data and FlightAware estimates. The data includes only aircraft that filed instrument-based flight plans with air traffic controllers, meaning it excludes many hobbyists, flight trainers, crop sprayers and other local air traffic that flies based on sight, not instruments. Among the noncommercial airports that received the most in federal airport improvement grants: ...........................................Federal Airport..................Operations Municipal Airport.............Improvement Grants............... Per Day Independence..................... $7,261,069.......................... 27 Iowa City........ .......................$3,889,023......................... 51 Boone ................................$1,651,988.......................... 54 Ames .................................$1,509,756......................... 91 Keokuk ................................$1,373,080......................... 20 Red Oak ...............................$1,225,485......................... 31 Muscatine..............................$1,223,977......................... 38 Le Mars ....................................$876,834......................... 28 Forest City................................$833,672.......................... 15 Oskaloosa................................$768,084.......................... 21 Source: USASpending.gov, FlightAware.com [desmoinesregister.com]
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