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Little Airports Big Help to All Who Take to Sky
November 6, 2009
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  • The expense of flying a private airplane gives most people the impression that small airports have become exclusive clubs for the wealthy, whose political influence allows them to pass on the cost to taxpayers who don’t benefit.

    That impression is inaccurate for many reasons. The 10,000 pilots in town this week to attend the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association aviation summit are one visible indication of the importance of private airplanes, and the small public airports that serve them, to the nation’s economy.

    Many of these pilots use an airplane as a work tool. It is a serious business, even for those who fly only as a sport or to access remote vacation spots.

    In a recent editorial, USA Today complained that “a wildly disproportionate” amount of ticket taxes that airline passengers are charged is spent on more that 2,800 fields they’ll never visit. Expressing a widely held view, the newspaper said, “It would be hard to find fliers who wouldn’t rather keep their money or see it spent on airports they use.”

    Passengers who use Tampa International Airport are fortunate that Lou Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, has a more informed opinion.

    An airport without scheduled passenger service does have an impact on airports that sell tickets. Miller knows that airplanes using the three small, public airports in Hillsborough County – Peter O. Knight, Tampa Executive and Plant City – are staying out of the air around the crowded major public airport. That’s why he calls them reliever airports.

    Look up and you probably will not see an airplane. The sky is not crowded. Congestion occurs only around the big airports, especially the ones airlines use as hubs. Encouraging smaller planes to go to smaller airports helps minimize delays and avoids concentrating too much air traffic at one site.

    Visit a small airport and you’ll see that not everyone who flies a private airplane has money to burn. Many airplanes are owned by groups of pilots who split the costs. Other pilots rent an airplane by the hour.

    One unrecognized way small airports serve the traveling public is flight training. About half the landings at Peter O. Knight are by students learning to fly or pilots improving their skills. Mixing these small, slow planes with the fast jets full of passengers is not a way a rational passenger would want to save a few dollars on the price of a ticket.

    Small airports are where many airline pilots come from. Some of the flight instructors are actually working on a career as an airline pilot, which requires many hours of flight time. Outside the military, there are few other affordable paths to a flying career.

    The money for Hillsborough’s airports comes from user fees, not taxes. Ticket fees are collected from passengers, and pilots are taxed when they buy aviation fuel. But unlike the fuel used by cars and trucks, most of the fuel in an airplane is burned high above the ground and far from the runways, which are usually empty. It’s easy to overlook how much money the pilots are contributing.

    Hangars and other amenities at Hillsborough’s small airports are self-supporting. Maintenance done at the airports sustains good jobs. And the nation’s network of small airports gives access to areas the airlines don’t serve.

    These airports are used by law enforcement, firefighters, crop dusters, wildlife officials, charity flights, business executives, TV crews, medical services and tourists.

    Pilots flying for all those reasons and more will be in Tampa today for the start of the three-day summit. About 100 airplanes will be on display at Peter O. Knight on Davis Islands. Ferries will take pilots from the convention center to the nearby airport. The Experimental Aircraft Association and the National Business Aircraft Association also are participating in the summit.

    If you’re interested in flying, you might want to check out the seminars and exhibits available today and Friday. More information is available at

    You can learn about flying and even sign up for a $70 introductory flight. If you do, you’ll be taking off in a small airplane, and the jet pilots coming and going from Tampa International Airport will never see you.

    Date: 2009-11-05