Santa Monica airport

Sept. 9, 2020

Business aviation has a symbiotic relationship with the nation’s airports and the communities that surround them. However, with restrictions being imposed on airports, and some facing outright closure, the business aviation community needs to become more actively engaged in protecting and preserving access.

This advocacy role can be challenging, but with a clear plan of action and an appreciation of the core issues, business aviation can have a positive impact on airports, the interrelated local economies and nearby residents. To help in that goal, a recent NBAA News Hour webinar, moderated by NBAA Director, Airports and Ground Infrastructure Alex Gertsen, brought together experts from across the industry to discuss the associated regulations and examples of current challenges.

“We all can become an advocate for our home airport and airports that we rely on,” said Gertsen. “By participating in a pilot or airport association, by attending airport commission and city council meetings, by building a stronger relationship with the airport manager, by engaging with the surrounding community and by adhering to and promoting quiet flying and noise abatement procedures, all of us can play a role in ensuring the viability of our nation’s airports.”

Jol Silversmith, member of law firm KMA Zuckert LLC, chronicled the most important laws and regulations related to protecting access to U.S. airports. He noted “airports are surprisingly subject to limited federal regulation” and beyond the Surplus Property Act of 1944, “there is not a lot in federal statutes that requires an airport to remain open or to ensure access to all types of operations.”

Airports, however, rely heavily on federal grants and these federal funds typically are accompanied by obligations that ensure access rights, do not permit exclusivity agreements and restrict airports from using airport revenue and property for non-aeronautical purposes.

Silversmith also detailed the importance of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, known as ANCA, in stopping airports from imposing access restrictions at the local level. Silversmith provided guidance on the use of informal Part 13 and formal Part 16 complaints with the FAA as a tool for pilots, airport tenants and aircraft operators seeking to defend their rights of access.

These legal and regulatory rights can protect the business aviation community, said Luther Kurtz, CEO of the AivCon Inc. skydiving centers, but he added that community influence can be extremely powerful and can help avoid protracted disputes. “You can win [the legal battles] and still be kept from having your rights to conduct your aeronautical activity at an airport,” said Kurtz.

“The best thing to do is to try to educate the airport and educate yourself,” he added. “Get to know your airport manager and understand what the concerns are and try to do everything you can do so you don’t have to go through that litigation process.”

Partnering with the airport manager and local community leaders can result in innovative processes that potentially mitigate residents’ concerns. Jeff Smith, chief helicopter pilot with a Part 91 flight department, board member of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council and chair of the NBAA Access Committee, detailed how the industry’s work with East Hampton Airport, and surrounding communities on Long Island, NY, has created voluntary over-water helicopter routes to limit noise in the region in attempt to discourage the airport’s closure.

“The operators have been very compliant. Everybody understands what’s at stake here, but they also want to be good neighbors,” Smith noted, referencing a depiction of helicopter radar tracks precisely following the new routes.

Christian Fry, president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, illustrated the power of community outreach by detailing how the city council has convinced many in the community that the airport has no benefit, dismissing the role it plays in disaster relief, medical transport and in limiting property height restrictions, to name a few.

But there is still time to reeducate the city’s residents before the city is able to exercise its option to close the airport at the end of 2028, said Fry. “We as a community have to look at this asset with a new set of glasses,” he said, adding that general aviation airports could play a pivotal role in the successful introduction of electronic vertical take-off and landing technologies that could boost local economies.

Fry also noted that airports need to promote their positive impacts on communities to thwart efforts to redevelop airport property.

That value proposition is a useful tool for airport advocates to use in discussions with local officials, said Kurtz, who is also mayor of Charlevoix, MI.

“Airports are such great economic drivers, he said. “I encourage city leaders at any airport to understand all the ways an airport benefits your community because it certainly does.”