Michael Egenton Star-Ledger
Our N.J. economy thrives because of small airports, so our small airports must thrive
March 12, 2020
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  • Our economy in New Jersey is as diverse and dynamic as ever. With the highest concentration of scientists and engineers in the world, our life sciences industry is leading in innovation. Our proximity to New York City has built one of the strongest financial industries right here in New Jersey. And with some of the nation’s top universities and research facilities, the pharmaceutical industry has attracted fortune 500’s companies.

    However, with so much competition along the eastern seaboard, it is sometimes challenging to retain industry growth. That’s why in my role at the chamber of commerce, I am constantly promoting general aviation and New Jersey’s network of local airports as a tool for businesses to take advantage of.

    General aviation airports don’t always get the credit they deserve in this state. The fact of the matter is that although most of our airports don’t shuttle thousands of passengers a day like some of the large hub airports, they are an incredible resource for business growth and economic development in our state. From Morristown to Mercer to Millville, business leaders from every industry tell me that our airports increase efficiency, productivity, and accessibility for their businesses.

    These general aviation aircraft are often used by all levels of a company, from business owners to engineers and salesmen. Many of these businesses are hours away from one of the larger commercial hubs in the New York or Philadelphia metropolitan areas, so their local airport can be the only viable transportation resource for their business. And as regional markets stretch our business across the Northeast, spending hours traveling via rail or road can put a business under. General aviation keeps our business community efficient, and our local economies thriving.

    Take General Pallet as an example, based out of Flemington. They are a leading producer and distributor of pallets and shipping containers. With customers all across the East Coast, their business requires them to reach multiple destinations in a given day. Since they are expected to meet these demands in an efficient manner, general aviation is needed to be able to visit from pilots to mechanics to engineers suppliers and meet with potential new customers.

    But General Pallet isn’t a unique case. All across New Jersey, businesses of all sizes are using our network of 42 public-use airports to stay competitive in a growing economy. And this general aviation activity leads to economic development for our communities. Altogether, general aviation airports contribute more than $2.8 billion to the state’s economy, supporting more than 12,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $890 million.

    General aviation is a boon to the New Jersey economy. But unfortunately, recent trends show the aviation workforce, from pilots to mechanics to engineers, is dwindling. It is estimated that in North America alone, we will need 212,000 new pilots and 193,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years, so not only do we need to recognize the importance of this sector but we need to invest in initiatives that will engage with younger generations and encourage them to pursue aviation careers. That is being done throughout the state, like at the Alexandria Field Airport, where the owner, Linda Fritsche Castner, works with people of all ages to promote aviation careers. Starting in 2014, Castner started the Living Labs Experience, which consist of sixth-grade field trips that introduce children to aviation focused projects at the airport, using STEM core curriculum. These types of programs are invaluable in addressing the workforce development issues.

    Additionally, general aviation has been at the forefront of developing technology to reduce carbon emissions, which is not only important at the global level but will create jobs. And we need to make sure we enact policies that will support this important economic driver. That means considering remembering this network of airports as part of broader infrastructure debates and supporting local policies that will foster growth and understanding about the importance of this sector.

    For example, last year, I testified in support of A-4377 (signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on January 21, 2020), which directs the New Jersey Department of Transportation to produce a comprehensive directory of airports and also develops a Public Use Airports Task Force, which can evaluate, analyze, and study the value of our airport system. Efforts like these will provide the support and recognition that general aviation needs to service communities across the state.

    Supporting our network of airports and aircraft of all sizes will have a big impact for New Jersey communities and communities across America.

    Michael Egenton is the executive vice president of Government Relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.