State Study Concerns Airport Industry
September 21, 2014
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  • Ohio’s secondary airports have a significant economic impact on their communities, but the state of Ohio is not yet ready to increase state funding for runway maintenance, safety or other improvements at the perennially cash-strapped airports.

    After 18 months of study, the Ohio Department of Transportation recently released a draft of a study of the state’s 97 airfields used for business and general aviation. It’s begun a series of public meetings to gather more information and expects a final report in December.

    The Northeast Ohio meeting is set for Monday afternoon, Sept. 29, at the Brecksville Community Center.

    Corporate airport users and private pilots are watching the state study carefully. While they hope it will lead to increased funding, they are wary that the state might use its economic clout to pick winners and losers, leading, ultimately, to the closure of some airports.

    Terry Slaybaugh, president of the Ohio Aviation Association, an airport operator’s trade group that has been pushing for a state aviation capital program, said he doesn’t believe the study will directly lead to the closure of any airports. But he said the airports need help if they are going to survive.

    “One of the things the study is going to illustrate is there are huge capital needs at general aviation airports across the state,” said Slaybaugh, who is director of aviation for the city of Dayton, which operates the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport in Miami Township, a general aviation field, and the James M. Cox Dayton International Airport. “I hope that the study provides some insight to the state that possibly there is a greater role for them to play.”

    Closing an airport can be difficult. The Federal Aviation Administration sets safety and runway condition standards for airports and backs up those standards financially, though its airport improvement budget has been slashed in recent years.

    Nonetheless, if an airport closes, it must repay the FAA for any improvements it funded over the prior five years.

    In January 2013, ODOT initiated the “Ohio Airports Focus Study.” The plan was to examine the roles airports play in their communities and to catalog the improvements and their costs.

    The draft report released earlier this month highlighted the economic impact of the airports and documented airfield capital improvement needs but did not suggest what, if any, additional state money might be committed to the airports.

    “We’re still in the draft stage of the airport study,” said ODOT press secretary Steve Faulkner. “We hope this report will help guide policymakers and decisions when prioritizing airport improvements.”

    The draft study estimates that 17,500 jobs and $688 million in payroll and benefits can be tied to these airports. Adding in the economic value of on-airport business tenants and visitor spending and applying an economic impact multiplier, the study estimated the airports generate $1.8 billion in economic activity.

    Airport users and operators believe those numbers show the airports are an important economic development tool.

    “We see Lost Nation as a regional asset,” said Mark Rantala, executive director of the Lake County Port and Economic Development Authority, which is taking over operation of Willoughby Lost Nation Airport on Sept. 30. “Someone can fly in from a plant in Omaha if they have a facility in Mentor or Willoughby and land at Lost Nation. That makes Lake County an attractive place to do business.”

    Last September ODOT held a first series of meetings around the state to hear what airport operators, general aviation pilots and other stakeholders saw as the highest priorities. Most speakers at a meeting in Brecksville spoke in favor of increased airport funding and against any closures.

    Jeffrey Gorman, president and CEO of Gorman-Rupp Co. in Mansfield, said his company pilot in 2012 made about 50 trips into Mansfield with customers. The firm’s airplane, he said, “is one of the most successful sales tools we’ve ever gotten.”

    Northeast Ohio airports included in the study are Ashtabula County Airport, Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Airport, Kent State University Airport, Lorain County Regional Airport, Portage County Airport and Willoughby Lost Nation Airport.

    Most of the state’s $3.1 billion transportation spending budgeted for 2015 is allocated to roads and bridges. Airport maintenance is budgeted at $2.8 million.

    The FAA typically requires a local match of 10% of the cost of any work it requires.

    For most of the state’s corporate and general aviation airports, that match can be hard to find. Revenue from landing fees, rental of hangar space and the sale of aviation fuel might cover day-to-day operating costs, but the airports typically rely on a public agency to cover any operating losses or large maintenance expenses.

    Cuyahoga County Airport, one of the busier general aviation airports, has a 2015 budget of $1.5 million. Because of a revenue shortfall, the county general fund includes a $575,000 subsidy for the airport.

    In Cleveland, Mayor Frank Jackson has insisted he won’t consider closing money-losing Burke, despite pleas that the land should be used for development. Willoughby Lost Nation Airport was sold by Willoughby to the county’s port authority in part because it had been losing about $200,000 a year.

    ODOT puts Lost Nation’s economic impact at $9.4 million, derived from the 35 jobs and $1 million in payroll at the airport. However, the study estimates the airport’s capital needs at $19.1 million over the next 20 years, including $8.4 million in runway upkeep and $10.7 million for desirable improvements such as a runway lighting system and an additional taxiway or second landing strip.