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A Team Approach: Steps to Positioning Airport Projects for Community Benefit 

May 28, 2024 · Insights

Featured in Airport World, Issue 1, 2024

By Ryan Pearce, PE, Vice President, Aviation

Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport

It was an adage that drove development in the western United States: When the railroad came to town, you thrived. When it left, you died.  

While a bit hyperbolic, that transportation revolution was transformative, not only for travel and commerce, but for development. As Union Pacific proudly notes in its history, more than 7,000 cities and towns west of the Missouri River began as depots and water stops.  

Today, that job the railroad had as an economic driver has been assumed by airports. From Atlanta Hartsfield to Huntsville International to Bessemer (Ala.) Municipal Airport, airports of all sizes have a direct impact on a city’s and region’s economic vitality and prosperity. As Airports Council International (ACI) notes, airports in America account for $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and support nearly 11.5 million jobs.  

Yet, for as high profile as airports can be in their communities, what is unseen are the infrastructure needs, whether those needs be due to age or use that has exceeded the operation’s original scope. The same ACI report notes airport infrastructure improvements in the U.S. top $115 billion, with most airport funding coming through sources other than taxpayer funds.  

That last fact is key as airport owners and operators eye improvements and upgrades to their facilities and airfields. While user fees are often the primary source of revenues for airport operations, fees alone often aren’t enough to pay for upgrades and improvements. Knowing not only where to access the funds but how those funds must be used is as vital as the plans that drive an airport improvement project.  

By today’s economics, airport improvements and expansions are as much as land-use and financing exercise as they are engineering and security. Putting together the pieces can stretch an airport manager beyond their comfort zone, especially for small to midsize airports. Stepping back from the details, though, to see a project in a holistic light, managers can successfully elevate infrastructure improvement to economic development.  

Tap into community, industrial boards 

Like the railroads that brought economic prosperity to towns they visited, airports have the same effect, including general aviation airports. A joint report released in April 2023 by the National Association of State Aviation Officials and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials found that, for every dollar invested in GA airports, $75 was returned on average by companies utilizing those facilities.  

This trickle-down effect is real and demonstrates how airport projects are community development projects. With this lens, airports have a spectrum of community expertise at their disposal that they can lean on to develop an appropriate plan for their projects.  

Beginning with airport boards, these advisory groups usually are staffed with people who are invested in the community and bring insights into the area’s needs and potential that an airport can help meet or seed. Beyond recognizing the demand for more hangars or a larger runway, they could identify opportunities to complement an airport’s transportation value with elements to attract technology companies or act as an education center.  

Industrial development authorities also give project teams a partner to identify and secure federal and state incentive packages, tax breaks, or grants to advance projects. Because engineers and architects work with the FAA for all airport improvement reviews, they see where funding drives a project. Partnering with the industrial development staff, they can represent the interests of the owner and help navigate the myriad of funding streams that can secure a project’s goal.  

Communicate a vision 

Focusing on the business development opportunities of an airport project allows airport managers and boards to provide investors a clear picture of what their investment could look like and how that facilities business activities in the community.  

Yet, for the community members, what inspires some can also aggravate others. Traffic, both in the air and on the ground, as well as noise and light pollution created by the traffic or the construction, itself, can easily generate opposition to a project. Navigating the issues that could adversely affect a project takes working knowledge of zoning mandates and guidelines in addition to the vision for where an airport can take a community.  

For airport leaders, this means communicating both how their projects will proceed in addition to how they will serve the community. Engineering and design teams have navigated these political waters in other projects, providing airport project managers a valuable resource who they can tap to develop appropriate outlines and explanations that support an airport’s business plans for the community to see.  

This exercise can have a dual purpose, helping owners identify sustainable revenue sources that support operations through 5-, 10-, or 20-year plans. Fuel flow, landing, parking fees, concessions – the right portfolio of documents outlining how to develop potential revenue sources can help airport leaders position operations for a maximum return on investment.  

Pryor Field Airport DCU

Plan beyond the project 

As demonstrated, a community engagement strategy is a good business practice because what occurs within the boundaries of an airport reaches much beyond its property to impact both land development and residents. For any airport improvement project to be successful in today’s climate, airport operators need to be mindful of those impacts and think long-term. 

What are the population growth trends? What are the distribution trends that could influence air freight? What are the trends in environmental regulations? What are the corporate or industrial investment trends that could put more demand on air service?  

In Huntsville, regional population growth of 16% in the past decade followed the area’s development as a vital aerospace and manufacturing hub. The growth not only impacted the international airport but also nearby Pryor Field in Decatur.  

The FAA estimates airport development to reach past $62 billion in the next four years. Small and medium hubs are predicted to represent the fastest part of that infrastructure growth.  

With the right partners, the right plan, and right approach, managers and owners of these vital components to the nation’s air traffic ecosystem can ensure their communities thrive for the long-term by securing the future of their airport’s operations.        

Featured in Airport World, Issue 1, 2024

Ryan Pearce

Vice President, Aviation

Tel: 334-271-3200

About Ryan Pearce