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"High federal price tag for Maine airports weighed against economic benefit"

Monday, October 22, 2012

High federal price tag for Maine airports weighed against economic benefit
By Abigail Curtis
The Bangor (ME) Daily News

BELFAST, Maine - On a crisp autumn day, the blue skies above Belfast were
dotted by small airplanes that looked like mere toys when seen from the
ground below.
Those planes land and takeoff from Belfast Municipal Airport, a small,
city-owned facility that is home to a flight school and charter service and
24 hangars that house privately owned planes.
The city provides the airport with a manager and pays for general
maintenance and upkeep. But when it comes to getting major projects done -
like expanding the apron, so a wider variety of planes can safely use the
airport - the city relies on assistance from federal grants from the Airport
Improvement Program. Since 2007, Belfast Municipal Airport has received
$701,079 in grants that have allowed it to build the apron and acquire land
for development.
"I view the airport as another gateway to Belfast, kind of like the harbor,"
Thomas Kittredge, the city's economic development director and airport
manager, said recently. "An airport can be a revenue generator for the
But the federal price tag for the state's publicly funded airports adds up
fast. Thirty airports in Maine have received more than $168 million from the
government for capital improvement projects since 2007. Those projects were
as small as $4,180 to acquire land for development at Millinocket Municipal
Airport and as large as $9.3 million to expand the apron at Portland
International Jetport. Municipalities and the Maine Department of
Transportation have to pay for a small percent of qualified projects that
win the grants, but the lion's share of the costs are funded through the
Federal Aviation Administration.
Just a handful of airports in the state host commercial airlines - the
Jetport, Bangor International Airport, Northern Maine Regional Airport at
Presque Isle, Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, Hancock County-Bar
Harbor Airport in Trenton and Augusta State Airport chief among them. The
rest of the publicly funded airports primarily serve general aviation
purposes. Small, privately owned planes land there, people often can learn
to fly there and companies use them to improve their ability to do business
in and out of Maine.
"The federal funding is important for projects for us," said Caleb Curtis,
who owns Curtis Air and manages day-to-day operations at Pittsfield
Municipal Airport.
The airport has received more than $1.5 million since 2007 in order to do
major projects. Those recently have included redoing the runway, which was
original to the 1940s when the airport was built, and redoing the airport's
"Aviation is a really important infrastructure to have. Not only for
businesses, but for people to come to the area," Curtis said. "A lot of
people don't know much about aviation. They think it's these high, elite
guys who are using the service; that's not the case. We're not talking about
the super-rich people. These guys, instead of spending $10,000 on a
snowmobile every year, they have an airplane. It's a recreation that a lot
of people are involved with."
One of the misconceptions that many involved in aviation would like to clear
up is the belief that the federal money for airports comes from a
broad-based tax. That's not the case. The Airport and Airway Trust Fund is
supported by taxes on airline tickets, aviation fuel and use of
international air facilities.
"Essentially, it's a user-based thing," Scott Wardwell, the airport director
for Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle, said. "If you never
flew in your life, you would never contribute to the upkeep of airports."
Jeff Northgraves, the airport manager for Knox County Regional Airport, said
that he understands the price tag for airport projects can seem too
expensive to some people, who are shocked that it can cost $1 million for a
wildlife fence.
"The bottom line is, it's coming from a pot of money that passengers have
put in so that they'll be safe when they fly," he said.
Because of the nature of the taxes that fund the airport improvement grants,
even conservative government watchdog group The Maine Heritage Policy Center
doesn't get too worked up about millions being spent at some of the state's
small airports - though many of those only serve the small segment of the
population which needs general aviation services.
"You can argue about 'that's enough money for these,'" Scott Moody, the
think tank's CEO, said this week. "But the fact that they are user fees
makes them a little more palatable and less economically destructive than,
say, a broad-based tax. For the most part, as long as they are self-funding,
we have much less of an issue."
In fact, airports in Maine do better than that, according to a 2006 economic
impact study done for the Maine Department of Transportation. The study
looked at economic benefits attributable to the state's 36 publicly owned
commercial service and generation aviation airports. That figure includes
some airports which have not recently received Airport Improvement Grants,
such as Islesboro Municipal Airport.
At that time, almost 21,000 jobs were connected to Maine's airports, with an
estimated payroll of $487.9 million. The total economic activity associated
with the airports was estimated to be more than $1.5 billion, according to
the study.
Kittredge said that the airport in Belfast supports several of the city's
businesses, including athenahealth and the Front Street Shipyard, as well as
possibly enticing a different type of tourist to visit the community.
"If we could make our airport attractive to pilots, they will come to
Belfast to spend money," he said.
J.B. Turner of Front Street Shipyard said that many of his customers use the
airport, and potential customers always ask if there is one nearby. 

"It's an economic growth opportunity for Belfast," he said. "It's a way to
connect to Belfast easily for people who do have private planes."
Some airport managers, including Wardwell, believe that the economic growth
opportunities would be better if FAA safety regulations were not constantly
being ratcheted up.
"The public wants and expects the safest air system possible," he said,
describing the additional safety regulations that have been put in place
over the last decade as "astronomical."
His small airport has to adhere to the same regulations as much larger,
busier airports, he said, arguing that the one-size-fits-all approach to
safety is just not working. The FAA, however, disagrees with this idea.
"The FAA is focused on maintaining the world's safest aviation system for
the traveling public, including airport infrastructure," an agency spokesman
who declined to be named said Friday. "The agency works with our nation's
airports to ensure their local economic viability and that we maintain our
high safety standards. As part of that, the FAA's airport improvement
program provides financial assistance to airports for safety equipment and
capital needs required by safety regulations."
But Wardwell said that people might be safer if regulations at smaller
airports are reduced. That would lower ticket costs at airports like his and
lure travelers back from larger, cheaper airports that are farther away.
This way people would forgo long drives on highways where accidents are not

"It's common knowledge that you're much safer in an airplane," he said. "In
reality, we could potentially make people safer by reducing the regulations
at smaller airports and cutting the costs."

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