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Small Pa. airports get big bite of funding from FAA's federal grant program

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Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Westmoreland County's Rostraver Airport doesn't offer commercial flights, but over the past five years it received more than $2.1 million from a federal program funded largely through fees on airline tickets, a study shows.

"Airports like this can be the most desolate places in the world on a day like this," said Glen Ramsey, 75, of St. Petersburg, Fla., waiting for rain to pass Friday morning so he and a friend could fly home in a 1969 Piper Cherokee single-engine plane.

Rostraver's airfield was otherwise empty. For two hours, airport operations consisted of an employee cutting grass and food being served in the airport's Eagle's Landing Restaurant — and even that was slow.

"I've had two tables all morning," a waitress said.

Since 2005, Rostraver, which averages 115 takeoffs and landings a day, received more than $2.1 million through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program, according to a study by Subsidyscope, an initiative of Pew Charitable Trusts. That money helped pay for airfield paving, lighting, snow-removal equipment and a project to add space beyond its runway to meet federal safety guidelines.

That's a small cut of the $563.6 million the federal grant program has pumped into Pennsylvania aviation over the past five years, including $476.2 million directly to 21 airports across the state, the study showed. Other money went toward studies, surveys and a state grant program.

Not surprisingly, the state's busiest commercial airports received much of the money. Philadelphia International received $139.1 million, or almost a quarter of all money doled out, and Pittsburgh International got $66.8 million. Pittsburgh's total included $9.8 million in American Recovery and Investment Act money for runway improvements, the largest stimulus check for aviation in Pennsylvania, the study showed.

But 10 of the airports that cashed in, receiving a combined $68.6 million since 2005, averaged fewer than 20 commercial or charter passengers a day. Three of those airports — Rostraver (0 passengers), Quakertown (0) and Allentown Queen City (11) — had fewer than 20 passengers during the entire five-year span.

Between 2005 and 2008, the state's airports received an average of $4.29 in grant money for every passenger. The national average, according to Subsidyscope research, was $3.85 per passenger.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major airlines, said the grant program is disproportionately funded.

Small general-aviation airports such as Rostraver supply about 3 percent of the money to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which keeps the $3.5 billion Airport Improvement Program afloat, Castelveter said. Yet, those airports use 17 percent of the services the FAA provides, such as air traffic control, and collect a quarter of the grant money.

Most of the money into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund — anywhere from 64 percent to 90 percent, depending on whom you talk to and how they calculate the share — comes from taxes and fees imposed on airline tickets. They include a 7.5 percent sales tax on the price of each ticket sold and a $3.40 fee for each flight segment. That means, if you buy a round-trip ticket between Pittsburgh and San Diego with one connection each way, your fee will be nearly $14.

"Airline passengers should not be funding projects at airports where commercial aviation does not fly," Castelveter said. "No one is questioning the value general aviation brings to communities in the United States. All we're saying is commercial aviation should not be paying the bill for those airports. Let the general aviation community pay for it."

Catherine M. Lang, the FAA's acting associate administrator for airports, disagreed.

Although critics argue that grants go to general-aviation airports that are playgrounds for wealthy private pilots, Lang said that's not the case. Many of the smallest airports are struggling to stay afloat financially while serving essential roles in their communities, she said.

Small airports provide aviation bases for medical transportation, law enforcement and the delivery of mail and other supplies, and are a boon to local economies, Lang said.

Gabe Monzo, director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which runs Rostraver and Latrobe's Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, agreed. According to a state Bureau of Aviation report he cited, tiny Rostraver has an economic impact of about $8 million a year, including $2.9 million in wages and 119 jobs, both at the airport and in the surrounding area.

Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents general-aviation pilots, noted improvements to small airports ultimately help commercial aviation.

"If (the FAA) did not provide funding for general-aviation airports and all those flights had to be thrown into the mix at the commercial airports, many of which are already congested, it would create an unholy mess. It's in everyone's best interest to maintain funding for general aviation," Dancy said.




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