Roughly 5000 small airports are in operation across the U.S. However, development gobbles up about one of these airports every other week. Housing and schools encroach upon land that was way out in the country 50 years ago, with counties and towns virtually ignoring land-use conflicts. The airport attrition rate might be even higher, but once a local government accepts airport funds from the federal government, it becomes harder and less remunerative to dispose of the land.
If VLJs and fractional ownership take hold, the picture may change. There was a time when towns and counties built airports to attract industry and jobs, and a similar time may come again. One of the lessons from September 11, 2001 is that it's wise for companies to disperse their assets, and many workers would feel happier and safer working outside the city.
So a question arises—how does one finance new outlying airports or develop existing ones to handle more sophisticated traffic? It turns out that the means is already in place, although it's somewhat dysfunctional at the moment.
The 108th Congress (2003-2004) passed, and the President signed into law, the Vision 100—Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. Among other things, the act continues provisions for airport capital improvements that were authorized by the Wendall H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for 21st Century (AIR-21) in 2000. That act paved the way for grant funds for most general aviation airports.
Airports can use grants to finance 90% of eligible capital improvement or repair costs for items related to issues such as noise control and safety. Local airports can get up to $150,000 per year each year that Congress budgets $3.2 billion or higher for AIR-21. The entitlement can be used in the fiscal year it becomes available and the next two fiscal years.
Of course, there is the matter of budgeting the money. The dollars are supposed to come from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. General aviation pilots pay into the trust fund "at the pump" through a special federal tax on fuel, while airline passengers contribute through an excise tax on airline tickets.
But there's one problem, according to aviation consultant Colleen Turner. Lately, money that should be directed toward airport capital improvements is instead being diverted toward FAA operations. The funds budgeted for airport capital improvements in 2005 totaled $3.6 billion. Yet there are efforts in Congress to divert $600 million of that in 2006. Considerable debate prattles on about that, but it's unlikely to appear on the 10 o'clock news.
Beyond airport growth, Vision 100 defines seven other strategies and a methodology for implementing them. Each strategy offers further opportunities for savvy engineers and entrepreneurs:
1. Establishing an effective curb-to-curb security system without limiting mobility or civil liberties.
2. Creating a responsive air traffic system by devising alternative concepts of airspace and airport operations to serve present and future vehicle classes and business models, such as remotely operated vehicles and spaceports.
3. Providing each traveler and operator in the system with situational awareness through the creation of a combined information network.
4. Managing safety through an approach that can rapidly integrate major changes, such as new technologies or procedures.
5. Introducing new policies, operational procedures, and technologies to minimize the impact of noise and emissions and eliminate ground contaminants at airports. This effort includes exploration of alternative fuels and engine and aircraft designs.
6. Reducing the impact of weather on air travel through a system-wide capability for enhanced weather observations and forecasts, integrating them with the tools used by air system operators.
7. Harmonizing equipage and operations globally by developing and employing uniform standards, procedures, and air and space transportation policies worldwide.