Small KY Airports Weigh Costs/Benefits

Aug 24, 2011

Hundreds of aircraft take off and land every day at Kentucky’s 59  airports, and another one’s been proposed for Gallatin County near the Kentucky Speedway.  Only six are certified to offer passenger service… Lexington, Louisville, Paducah, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Northern Kentucky-Cincinnati. The remaining 53 are designated as general aviation airports. They don’t offer passenger service but are still costly to operate. 

At the public airport in Madison County, students enrolled in Eastern Kentucky University’s aviation program may take off and land as many as 100 times a day. In addition to student instruction, private planes and corporate jets are regular airport users. Most rural airports in Kentucky are pretty basic, a runway, a hangar or two, and a building housing a conference room and lounge.  However small, it still takes money to run an airport.

“It is expensive.  An airport is a transportation system, just like roads, bridges, railways and those kinds of things,” says Madison County Airport Board member George Wyatt, who says lighting systems, which in many cases need to be maintained 24-7 need to be maintained.

And that gets expensive. Madison and the dozens of rural airports in Kentucky get 150-thousand dollars a year from the Federal Aviation Administration for operations.  They may also receive money from local governments.  For example, the Madison County facility gets $10,000 each from the cities of Richmond, Berea and the county government. Plus there’s revenue from fuel sales, and fees from independent contractors who offer flying lessons and maintain aircraft. Still, the airport is not self-supporting.  Eastern Kentucky University this summer took over management and expects the airport to be self-supporting.  The university has hedged its bets by allocating $112, 500 dollars to a contingency fund in its 2011-12 budget.

In addition to the high cost, unabashed aviation advocate Steve Parker contends rural airports are misunderstood. 

“Some people tell me, airports, rich guy’s flying club, ever hear that? Rich guy’s flying club, I can’t own an airplane, I’ve never owned an airplane in my life. I can’t afford it, right?  It’s not a rich guy’s flying club,” says Parker.

So the 30 year Air Force pilot and Kentucky Aviation Association Board member has taken it upon himself to educate Kentuckians on what rural airports do and the economic benefits.

“They don’t question the value of the interstate because if they dial 911 the ambulance comes on the highway. But when it comes to airports, a lot of people never step foot on an airport because they’re not a private pilot. They don’t have a business that uses it so they don’t come on here, but when I was at University of Washington they had a phrase, you get something out of it whether you go there or not,” says Parker. 

And that something as far as airports are concerned is bang for the buck.  Parker claims for every dollar invested in airports, 47 dollars come back to the community. Madison County airport board member George Wyatt describes airports as economic magnets.

“Business executives if they’re looking for an industrial site or retail sites do not come to town on a Greyhound bus, they come to the local airport. The local airport is the front door to the community,” says Wyatt.

And increasingly says Wyatt, business people interested in coming to a community arrive at the front door on corporate jets.

Some might consider Kentucky’s 59 airports as too many. On the contrary, Steve Parker says adjacent states have more. He’s mapped four or five areas in the Commonwealth he considers underserved.

“Look at extreme, extreme southeast Kentucky, they need infrastructure, they need jobs and there’s no airport near them, we’re trying to build one there, but it’s hard,” insists Parker.

And expensive.  Parker says building an airport costs a minimum of $15 million. But that doesn’t prevent aviation advocates from trying.  They say more and more communities consider airports a necessity and not a luxury.  Parker says just ask the 61 Kentucky counties that don’t have one.