NH's Small Airports are Vital to Our Economy
March 5, 2010
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  • An editorial in this newspaper on Feb. 9 (Airport maintenance: no state expansion) objected to a bill I sponsored, House Bill 1506, which seeks to create an “aeronautical fund” in our state budget. During these difficult financial times, it may seem improbable that there would be such a suggestion. Yet if we allow ourselves to dig deeper into the issue, we may see that this proposed bill seeks to address and correct a growing problem for our airports: a deteriorating infrastructure of secondary airports that eventually will result in safety issues.

    But how did we get to this point? First, a bit of background. “Private airports” has a broad definition. Any strip of land that can allow small aircraft to take off and land on private property could be so labeled. In New Hampshire, we have about 115 private airports. Of these, 24 are open for “public use” and are part of the total airport system in the United States. So important are all state airports to the U.S. system that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides financial subsidies under a National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS).

    Last year, New Hampshire received more than $21 million for 11 of the largest public-use airports. Regrettably, the remaining 13 did not qualify because of technical requirements. The FAA encourages all the states to support their non-federally funded airports. New Hampshire, like the other states, has a budget mechanism for that purpose, but over the past few years these programs have decreased to the point that the funding is close to zero. So, now what?

    General aviation aircraft have always paid their “fair share” to the state through registration fees and fuel taxes. However, their monies have been going to the state’s general fund. This would be OK if the state airport programs were funded by the state. But because of the fiscal crisis, they have not been.

    Included in general aviation are small aircraft, business jets and helicopters. All pay their “fair share” but are receiving virtually nothing in return. The purpose of HB 1506 was to create a dedicated fund, similar to the 299 dedicated funds that have been created in law. This “aeronautical fund” would allow the Department of Transportation to begin to solve the funding discrepancies among our airports. Could you imagine our highway fund being used for anything but our highways?

    While the impression may have been that our smaller airports exist solely for the pleasure of small aircraft flying enthusiasts, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as our harbors (Portsmouth, Rye and Hampton) cater to pleasure boaters, they really exist for commercial fishing and other commerce. These airports are primarily small businesses that cater to the aviation needs of other small- and medium-sized businesses. A good example is Jaffrey Airport, which has played a key role in the expansion and establishment of several businesses such as D.D. Bean & Sons Co., New Hampshire Ball Bearings, Millipore Corporation and Teleflex Medical.

    Additionally, dozens of smaller businesses, such as construction companies, law firms, banks, hospitals, political candidates, state and national officeholders and many more, use the services of aircraft charter companies from these smaller airports. They all create revenue that benefits our state. Multiply this one airport source of state revenue by the 13 that do not receive any funds, and now it is easy to see that this major source of revenue may be at risk. Do we want this to happen?

    Tourism is important to our state. Many of our tourists return year after year in their aircraft to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of New Hampshire. On your next visit to the Seacoast in the warmer months, why not stop at Hampton Airport to enjoy a great breakfast or lunch on the deck of the airport restaurant. Enjoy watching the small aircraft take off and land or just enjoy an ice cream cone with the kids and watch their eyes light up when they see the action. You could even take a biplane ride over the beach. I promise you will never forget that day with your family! A similar scenario could be repeated at nearly all our small airports.

    Last Wednesday, the House, with a bipartisan vote, passed an amended version of HB 1506, which is one small step to solving this problem. As we proceed slowly toward a solution, let’s make every effort to understand and protect the needs of New Hampshire businesses small and large. It really is in our best interest.

    Rep. Chris Nevins, R-Hampton, is a retired military and airline pilot who is looking forward to having the time once again to become a general aviation enthusiast.

    Date: 2010-02-22