Passengers in Boston pay for corporate jet landings in Berkshires
BOSTON -- When Tanglewood has a hot concert or the MassMOCA an alluring exhibit, you can tell not just by looking at their parking lots but also the tarmac at Pittsfield Municipal Airport.
The Gulfstreams end up parked wingtip to wingtip.
Airport officials have to close down their spare Runway 14/32 and use it as overflow space for the corporate jets that flock to the Berkshires like hummingbirds to a honeysuckle.
"We try to tuck them in as best as possible," says airport manager Mark Germanowski.
Now the city-owned airport is in the midst of a $38 million expansion project, and most of the money is not coming from its corporate users, but a Federal Aviation Administration program largely funded with the ticket taxes paid by commercial airline passengers.
Critics question why families shlepping through Logan International Airport should pay for an instrument landing system in Pittsfield that allows wealthy clients of the nearby Canyon Ranch Spa to land in bad weather.
All told, the federal government has handed out more than $7 billion nationally during the past 10 years to airports that see little or no airline traffic. In 2006, Pittsfield Municipal Airport led the state with $3.76 million from the FAA's Airport Improvement Program. It will seek $8 million more for each of the next three years.
"It's pork barrel politics," says Kenneth J. Button, professor of transportation at George Mason University's School of Public Policy and an expert on air transit taxation.
Yet supporters say the AIP improves safety and creates a robust airport network that can relieve congestion at commercial fields, while also serving as an economic engine in local communities.
"Having a good airport is almost as important as having decent highways going to and from a community," said Tom Maher, manager of the Plymouth Municipal Airport. Home to the Massachusetts State Police air wing as well as private enterprises such as the Boston MedFlight emergency helicopter service, it has received $2.24 million in AIP funds during the past two years.
"It can have some very interesting and positive impacts on an area if it can have an airport that can handle the growing and changing needs of corporate aviation," Maher said.
Germanowski and Maher also note that much of their recent work has been mandated by the FAA, which is requiring even smaller airports to have advanced landing systems, safer taxiway configurations and runoff areas to catch planes that might overshoot or come up short of a runway. Almost all the money spent this year in Pittsfield was to acquire land for just such a buffer zones.
The Airport Improvement Program gets about half of its funding from a 7.5 percent tax on domestic airline passenger tickets. The bulk of the remaining money comes from other domestic and international ticket taxes, as well as taxes on commercial jet fuel.
In 2005, the program distributed about $3.5 billion.
Federal regulations require that about a third of the money go to commercial airports. Among the other recipients are so-called "reliever" airports, which are designated diversion fields for commercial airports, as well as general aviation airports such as Pittsfield and Plymouth, which are at the end of the line awaiting discretionary funds.
Lawmakers are now considering new approaches to financing the FAA before its funding expires Sept. 30. The FAA proposes to scrap many existing passenger taxes and replace them with higher fuel taxes and user fees that would put more of the burden on the non-commercial aviation community.
Reliever or general aviation airports in Massachusetts -- generally those other than Logan Airport -- received $32.3 million in AIP funds during the past two years.
The FAA finances five-year master plans for such airports, and then reviews the resulting project wish list.
"There are eligibility guidelines in terms of what projects we fund, but the first priority is always safety," FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. "That covers a whole lot, from rehabbing or extending a runway to adding a new taxiway or installing a precision approach."
Beverly Airport, which is considered a reliever to Logan, has received $3.57 million during the past two years. Its expenditures have been pretty typical.
While it lacks commercial airline service, it is using the money to extend and repave its main runway, add the runway buffer zones and also replace a rotating beacon that highlights the airfield for approaching pilots.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)