Mesa Airlines left Brownwood Regional Airport in 2005, but daily airport activity did not leave along with the commuter air carrier.
That’s the contention of Brownwood airport manager Sharlette Bain, who said she felt “irritation” at a USA Today article on Sept. 17 about small, general aviation airports. The article’s premise is that federal taxpayers are forced to subsidize little-used general aviation airports at the expense of larger airports with airline traffic.
Bain said the article is unflattering to small airports and implies that “small airports (don’t) do anything.”
“Just because we don’t have carrier service doesn’t mean we’re not important,” Bain said.
From Oct. 1 of last year to Aug. 31, the Brownwood airport has recorded 5,982 “operations,” or takeoffs and landings, Bain said. “Granted, it’s not like D-FW, but that’s a lot for a small-town airport,” Bain said. “On a typical day I’d say 20 planes come in and out of here.”
The USA Today article, which cited the example of “an obscure federal program that raises billions of dollars through taxes on every airplane ticket sold,” grabbed the attention of airport executives and aviation trade groups who disagreed with the article.
There are thousands of smaller airports that were not profiled in the article that show a strong return on federal investment by way of economic activity for their communities, the American Association of Airport Executives said in a press release.
Over the past 10 years, the Brownwood airport has had about $3.4 million worth of federally funded improvements that have cost the City of Brownwood about $454,000 in matching funds, according to records with the Texas Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division.
Bain and other local officials said the federal expenditures at Brownwood’s airport are justified. “You’ve got to maintain it and make it safe,” Bain said.
Businessmen and industry representatives fly planes in and out of the airport, and Cook Children’s Medical Center has flown its turboprop here on medical flights, Bain said. Federal Express and UPS use the airport regularly, the military uses it, and other uses include flight instruction, crop dusting and recreation flying, she said.
“It’s a public facility,” Bain said. “ … Everyone can use the airport. Everyone can use the highway.”
Brownwood City Manager Bobby Rountree said rural airports “are as important to communities such as ours as larger airports are to larger communities.”
Rountree said the federal tax money spent at the airport is “absolutely” justified. “We have people who fly in who have economic interest in our area,” Rountree said. “Typically, your chairman of the board doesn’t come in on a bus.”
He said the airport contributes to a “full service community that is more attractive to outside interests” and helps generate economic, social and cultural opportunities.
“It’s just another one of the pieces of the puzzle that makes a community whole,” Rountree said. “When you have a have a smorgasbord of opportunities in your community, your community is much healthier.”
City Finance Director Walter Middleton said the USA Today article is a “big city versus small city or urban versus rural argument.”
“Our federal tax dollars belong to all of us,” Middleton said, adding that rural areas have the right to enjoy air service just as urban areas do.
“I think the grants are justified,” Middleton said, echoing Bains’ and Rountree’s assessment of what the airport brings to the community.
Middleton also said the grants are justified because it’s the feds who require the airport to be maintained to federal standards.
The airport generates revenue through fuel sales and hangar rentals, but it is not a money-maker for the city. In the 2009-’10 budget, revenue is projected at $700,000, and expenses are projected at $945,000.
Over the 28-year history of a federal program called the Airport improvement Program, Congress “has directed $15 billion to general-aviation airports, which typically are tucked on country roads and industrial byways,” USA Today reported.
Middleton said while the Brownwood airport does receive federal funds, it does not receive funds from that particular program.
The article contended that “critics say the number of subsidized airports with no commercial flights is excessive at a time when larger airports are struggling to deal with delays in air traffic, and that much of the money the general-aviation airports get benefits only a few private pilots.”
The article quoted Mesa Air Group CEO Jonathan Ornstein as saying, “Congressmen are spending millions building runways at these little airports. That is just a complete waste of money. There is a huge requirement to overhaul infrastructure at major airports.”
Tom Munson, president and CEO of Landmark Life Insurance in Brownwood, recently began taking flying lessons through Brownwood Flying Service at the Brownwood airport. Munson said the premise of the USA Today article seems to be “an elitist idea that comes out of metropolitan areas that ‘nobody is worthy but us.’”