It Takes a Community to Maintain an Airport

By Robert Mark on April 16th, 2007

When the City of Chicago’s Department of Aviation destroyed Meigs Field in the middle of the night a few years ago, it transformed KCGX into a poster child for the failure of both pro and anti-airport groups to work together successfully. With the future of AIP funding of general aviation / reliever airports in serious jeopardy in the United States at the hands of the FAA, the White House and the Air Transport Association, stories about airport failure and success seem pretty important.  

In vast contrast to Meigs, a business aviation success story lies snuggly nestled under the Class B just east of LAX. A few years ago, Hawthorne Airport (KHHR), was almost wiped off the map to make room for a huge industrial site.                        (Hawthorne Airport Photo by Zoltan Szalva)    

Many airports across the U.S., such as Witham Field in Stuart Florida and Chicago Executive Airport (formerly Palwaukee) just north of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Witham Field, for instance, has a fiery, well-organized anti-airport group focused on shrinking the airport. 

(Photo – an anti-Witham Airport meeting)

Chicago Executive Airport,(KPWK) trying to become the premier business aviation airport in Chicagoland, has stumbled a bit toward success, most recently when an 8+ acre redevelopment project fell apart a year ago. The airport is struggling to solidify its customer base under a new aerodrome name as well as decide where it fits between the two towns that sponsor it. 

Different Airports, Same Problem

All of these airports Meigs, Hawthorne, Witham and Chicago Executive share one common element … an active community relations effort. 

Unfortunately, these efforts are not all well focused, nor are they all specifically aimed at promoting their airport. But each is impressive in its own way with lessons worthy of consideration.

Chicago Meigs’ survival effort tactics were world renowned thanks to the efforts initially of a single person, Steve Whitney, a man who refused to the let, “The Greatest Little Airport in the World,” die.

Closed once by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Whitney and his Friends of Meigs Group worked many PR miracles with state and federal officials, the AOPA and the NBAA as well as rallying popular support to

Photo – Chicago Meigs Field – Courtesy Friends of Meigs) reopen the airport. They were successful in 1996.

But tweaking the nose of a powerful Democrat was not to be forgotten by Richard Daley and despite years of additional efforts by the FOM group, the mayor’s men snuck into the airport in the middle of the night on March 30, 2003 and carved the place up for scrap.

Despite the end result, the FOM work over the years still represents one of the Gold Standards for the efforts needed to save an airport.

At Hawthorne in California, an AOPA volunteer and pilot, Gary Parsons led the effort to convince the community that they had plenty to lose by turning the airport over to the bulldozers. The local population voted 70 percent in favor of saving the airport thanks largely to a dedicated group of airport volunteers organized by Parsons that spread the word to the local community – including residents, the media and local politicians – about the value of the airport. One source said the anti-Hawthorne Airport movement in 2001 spent nearly $250,000 to see the airport closed. This time money didn’t win.

Business aviation customers are the golden ring for most airports and Witham Field (KSUA) north of West Palm Beach is no exception. Although the relationship of the airport with the community was never warm, they were tolerant, at least until the airport extended runway 12/30 to just under 6000 ft.

That work started a firestorm of anti-airport activism that continues today and is much better organized than the people who support the field.  Called WAAM, the Witham Airport Action Majority, has even produced an anti-airport TV spot for local cable. In a sign of things to come, WAAM is also using the leverage of jet-engine air pollution and health concerns to stir the pot. At a recent NBAA meeting in San Diego, International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) director general Don Spruston said emissions legislation that will hit business aviation hard is already being drawn up by the European Union. Expect it next here in the states.

Chicago Executive Airport changed its name last fall as a dramatic symbol of a renewed focus on business aviation. The airport’s active pilot association, PAPA, quickly splintered as long-time tenants attempted to understand the airport’s direction in light of the halt to redevelopment. The airport has successfully garnered money to keep pouring new concrete however.

A second organization, the Chicago Executive Airport Association, (CEAA), claiming to represent the business interests of airport tenants, has struggled since last fall as well.

To its credit, Palwaukee / Chicago Executive developed an active community relations group – the Palwaukee Airport Community Engagement council (PACE) four years ago to reach out to the community much the way the people did at Hawthorne. Initially the group scored some major successes by developing an airport-supported noise reduction program and a series of brochures to explain the economic value of the airport. PACE developed a logo and a succinct mission statement … “To build knowledge, trust and cooperation between … the airport and its neighbors.”

Although many of the initial group’s volunteers have since disappeared from PACE, dwindling support from airport management has pretty much doomed the group to minor PR tasks at a time when the airport could use some fresh support.

The Lessons?

The experiences of these airports prove what happens when people both on and off the airport add a little sweat equity to their messages.  The recent media blitz from the Air Transport Association proves again the need to support your airport today … and to do it with regular, focused action, not simply words. Sitting back and hoping membership in the AOPA, NBAA or NATA is enough is no longer a viable option.

If the FAA and the administration have their way with the implementation of user fees, development of a new airline-focused group to run ATC and a severe cut in AIP funds, as they plan right now, the fundamental face of every aviation business in the U.S. will be changed forever.

We have only to look 5000 nm east at Europe to see what happens when the airlines push everyone else around.

Get into the fight … today!

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