Travelers foot the bill: The Airport Improvement Program is funded mostly by the nation's airline passengers, who pay a 7.5% sales tax on each ticket and a $3.60 fee for each flight. The money goes into an FAA fund that pays for airport projects and the air-traffic-control system.
A business traveler who flies once a week could pay $2,000 a year in such taxes. Private pilots pay taxes on airplane fuel that cost about $2.87 for a one-hour flight in the average piston-engine plane. The result: Commercial travelers subsidize many airports they never use, says the Air Transport Association, the main U.S. airline trade group. "The passengers who fly on airlines and the airlines are paying for projects at airports where we don't fly," association CEO James May says.
Meanwhile, local subsidies help private airplane owners avoid costs that commercial airports routinely charge airlines, such as landing fees and passenger taxes. Only 2% to 3% of general-aviation airports charge planes to land, says Guzhva, the Embry-Riddle professor. Why not impose such charges? "Nobody would land here if I charged a fee," says Randall Earnest, manager of Mercer County Airport in West Virginia. "You'd land at an airport that's not charging a fee."
Supporters say non-passenger airports bring growth to small communities and services such as merchandise deliveries and medical-transport helicopters. The larger airports can help ease congestion at crowded commercial hubs by giving private planes a separate landing field. "They're an economic marketing tool for the business community to show that they're accessible," Oberstar says. But private planes are used far more by recreational pilots than by business fliers, and usually are single-engine piston aircraft.
FAA records show that 66% of the nation's private airplanes are flown primarily for "personal/recreational" use. An additional 6% are used for flight instruction. Just 16% are flown primarily for business purposes. Some non-passenger airports, particularly in the Northeast, occupy valuable land that local officials say would be better used for development.
In Allentown, Pa., Queen City Airport, used only by private planes, is about 7 miles from Lehigh Valley International Airport. "There's no need to have this airport," Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski says of Queen City. Its 200 acres could be sold for $40 million to generate $500 million in development, $6 million a year in taxes for Allentown schools and $4 million for the city, Pawlowski says. The mayor says his efforts to close Queen City are blocked because the airport has received $13 million in federal funds. The FAA requires airports getting money to remain as airports, usually for 20 years. "That makes no sense to me," Pawlowski says. "Think about the jobs we could bring in."
Other mayors view local airports as "a little bit of a status symbol," says Steve McMillin, former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. "The way the demographics of Capitol Hill work out, everybody who's got a little airport wants to make sure their airport has got a little something."
General-aviation airports sit idle for hours each day across the country. Some are in remote areas, such as H.A. Clark Memorial Field in northern Arizona. The airport has received $12.6 million in federal cash since 1982 and has averaged eight flights a day, FAA estimates show. That's a subsidy of $151 for a flight that usually carries two or three people. Other little-used general-aviation airports are in suburbs close to similar airfields.
The Midwest National Air Center outside Kansas City has received $14.5 million and handles 33 flights a day. That's 7% of the number it could handle, according to a 2005 report by the Mid-America Regional Council, a planning group.
Express lanes: For private pilots, the airport network is a world of ease and tranquility unknown to airline passengers who endure long trips to airports, costly parking, slow security screening, packed airplanes and delayed flights. Private fliers often have a choice of nearby airfields that typically offer free parking, have no security screening, no delays and little congestion.
"The beauty of an airport like Centennial is if it gets crowded, you go cross-town to Metro or to Front Range" to land, says Robert Olislagers, executive director of Centennial Airport near Denver. Rocky Mountain Metro and Front Range, two other general-aviation airports, are about 20 miles away.
The ubiquity of airports can be a financial boon for their users. Airplane owners in Stafford County, Va., got a huge break in April. The county eliminated its tax on airplanes. That was done to match the policy in place at nearby Leesburg Executive and Manassas Regional airports.
The 29 people with small airplanes at the Stafford Regional Airport will see an average tax break of $655 a year, airport manager Ed Wallis says. The main beneficiaries, Wallis says, will be owners of expensive jets that he hopes to draw by exempting them from taxes of $180,000 a year in the case of a Gulfstream V. That break will lure business, Wallis says.
Stafford Economic Development Authority member David Beiler calls the tax break "a wealthy, powerful special-interest group getting what it wants." Stafford County this year increased the tax rate on automobiles by 25%. "It's ridiculous that someone with a car that's 10 or 20 years old should be paying more tax than someone with a $1 million airplane," says Stafford Supervisor Joe Brito, who opposed the tax cut. The measure passed on a 5-2 vote.
Contributing: Brad Heath and Paul Overberg