Study Says Public Support Needed for
Expansion of General Aviation Airports

MAY 9, 2000
National Air Transportation Association Release

The first order of business for airports seeking to expand or improve facilities is to secure the necessary funding. "But that's only part of the challenge," explained Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA). "Money is nice to have. But in addition to money, you have to deal with community support."

Indeed, airports of all sizes often butt heads with community opponents to airport expansion. There are about 700 organized anti-airport groups throughout the United States, according to NATA. These groups loudly protest whenever airport expansion is publicly discussed in their communities, and are often successful in getting local newspapers to chronicle their grievances. These newspaper stories usually serve to dim support for airport development among elected officials and the general public, especially since what little most people -- including public officials -- know about airports is gleaned from what they read in local papers.

General aviation (GA) airports are particularly hard pressed to get backing for facility expansion. In an effort to determine the most effective means to develop community support for improving GA airports, NATA, a public policy group representing the interests of aviation businesses, spent the past six months conducting an intensive study of public attitudes toward these facilities. "We're very pleased to say that the public considers aviation to be very important," Coyne said at a May 4 press conference called to announce the study's findings. Over three-quarters of those polled said they either support improving GA airports or indicated no opposition to doing so. But people do have concerns that GA airport development could lead to undesirable results, such as an increase in airplane noise levels in their communities.

The hard-core opponents to airport development "are a very small but loud minority," Coyne said. Coyne and NATA officials presented the results of their research to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Jane Garvey in a May 3 meeting at FAA headquarters. The NATA study marks the first time the public's attitudes toward GA airports have been gauged. NATA commissioned Ryan-McGinn Samples Research of Charleston, W.Va., and Weber McGinn, a strategic communications firm in Arlington, Va, to conduct research on public attitudes toward four of the most prominent GA airports in the U.S.: Flying Cloud, located just outside Minneapolis; Palwaukee in Chicago; Van Nuys in Los Angeles; and Solberg in Readington, N.J. A series of focus group sessions and extensive telephone polling in these airports' communities provided the basis for the study's findings.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the study is that the general public is fairly ignorant about aviation, particularly GA. While a small part of the populous is opposed to airport expansion of any kind, most people are either supportive of or undecided about airport expansion. Forty-six percent of those polled strongly or somewhat favor improving GA airports. Thirty-one percent said they're basically undecided or don't care. And 13 percent are somewhat or strongly opposed to GA airport development.

It is the nearly one-third who are undecided that must be targeted, Coyne said. The focus groups demonstrated that most of the undecided can be persuaded to support GA airport development if they're educated on the economic benefits of airports and their fears over noise and other issues are assuaged. "Their fears are fears that we think we can rebut if given the opportunity," Coyne said.

Regarding noise, most people think that airplanes of the future will be far noisier than today's aircraft. But, as everyone in the aviation industry knows, new technologies and more stringent international noise standards mean that planes of the future are likely to be much quieter. Noise pollution, in fact, is the overriding concern of those opposed to or unsure about airport expansion.

Another concern is that once a GA airport begins expanding it will eventually be converted into a commercial airport, a prospect that worries many residents living near GA facilities. But this fear is unfounded, Coyne said. "Frankly, an airport that's a general aviation airport today is almost certain to be a GA airport 15, 20 years from now," he explained. "Very, very few communities are making an effort to convert general aviation airports into commercial airports."

Coyne cited statistics showing that there are slightly fewer commercial airports today than there were 20 years ago. And the FAA projects there will be virtually the same number of commercial airports in the U.S. in 2020 that there are today (709 compared to 670). The NATA research found that of those opposed to improvements at GA airports, slightly more than one-third say they would be more likely to support those improvements if they were given assurances that the expansion wouldn't ultimately lead to commercial airline traffic.

Right now, the battle for the "undecided third" is being won by anti-airport groups, Coyne lamented. Those in the aviation industry spend most of their time either preaching to the choir or attacking the extremists. "We have to get up off our duffs and start talking to the undecided," he said. Many local political leaders are part of that undecided group. Most of these officials' knowledge comes from what they read in newspapers, which run stories that are often fueled by information provided by anti-airport extremists. "The more (the public officials) know, the more they realize that what they read in their newspapers isn't true," Coyne declared.

To that end, Coyne and other NATA board members will spend the next five months traveling the country to meet with local leaders to explain the results of the study and coordinate a national plan to communicate with the public and develop support for GA airport modernization. "We see this as a tremendous opportunity to educate Americans about the positive impacts general aviation airports have on communities," Coyne said.

The message that must be emphasized, explained NATA Chairman Charles Priester, is that GA airports are a key part of the national aviation system and will become increasingly important as hubs become more crowded and private planes become a viable alternative for frequent business flyers. "We have never adequately addressed (the notion that GA airports are part of a bigger) system," Priester said. "Airports must be capable of meeting modern means." Priester also serves as president of Illinois-based Priester Aviation.

New Jersey's Solsberg, one of the airports studied, has been struggling for years to get support for modernization. Solsberg officials would like to extend the airport's runway by 500 feet, but their requests to do so have been ignored by the public for the past five years. "If they can't (lengthen the runway) that airport might become a shopping mall within the next 15 to 20 years," Coyne said.

Ninety-five percent of Americans live within 25 miles of a GA airport and the aviation community must do a better job of convincing them that those airports provide numerous benefits, Coyne and Priester stated. "This (study) is good news and an excellent place to start to generate support," Priester said.

Source: National Air Transportation Association, Washington, D.C. For a free copy of the report, call NATA at 800.808.6282.