The Airport Task Force has recommended that operation and management of the Payson Municipal Airport be turned over to a permanent Airport Authority (AA). The AA, as a nonprofit entity financially and administratively independent of town government, would make the airport immediately financially self-sufficient. Town Council undoubtedly finds this feature most appealing, because eliminating the Town's General Fund contribution to operate the airport has been a long-sought goal of the Town.
I support the concept of creating an AA. As both a local pilot and owner of the aviation fuel sales operation at Payson Airport, I will eagerly welcome a more stable and less political Payson Airport. As the Town and Mayor's Airport Task Force continue to work out the details of the AA creation, we must be mindful of some potential pitfalls. The devil is in the details.
First, there is a need for a business plan.
Payson's airport contributes an estimated $8 million annually to our local economy. A Payson without an airport would undoubtedly want to create one so that we could enjoy the $8 million of economic benefits in exchange for the meager $70,000 General Fund contribution. The current plan for an AA proposes to make this already-good deal even better, by completely eliminating the $70,000 annual cost to the Town. But will the Town turn over long-term management of one of its most valuable and important assets to a new AA without being shown a detailed and reasonable AA business plan?
The success of the Payson AA depends entirely on whether the airport can be made financially self-sufficient, meaning that the AA will pay all expenses while existing entirely on self-generated income.
Justification for the Payson AA thus far has been simply, "Sedona did it, so can we." While Sedona Airport is a fairly reasonable comparison airport to ours, we do differ from Sedona in some very important ways. Sedona has 20 percent more airport-based aircraft and 20 percent more annual takeoffs and landings. Sedona also has many more on-airport businesses than Payson, due to the higher amount of tourist helicopter and airplane scenic flight activity in the Red Rock area. Does this mean a Payson AA is not feasible? Not at all. But it does mean that we must closely study the differences between the Payson and Sedona airports to give the Payson AA the best chance of success.
Central to any comprehensive AA business plan will be consideration of the consequences of the so-called "FAA Funding Crisis." Briefly, the FAA is currently at the end of its 20-year funding appropriation, and has put forth a Bush Administration-supported plan to shift much more FAA funding onto General Aviation (GA). Of course, national GA organizations are strongly opposing these tax and fee increases. But, if adopted as the FAA proposes, this will mean a large increase in the cost of operating GA aircraft and could lead to lower utilization of Payson Airport. Lower utilization means reduced income.
Will the AA still be able to operate the airport? We need the AA business plan to tell us.
Second, there needs to be accountability.
An Airport Authority's independence could be seen by some as a lack of accountability. Supporters should be ready to show why Payson's AA will be responsive and accountable to, not only the airport users, but to the non-flying citizens of Payson. The Task Force should be ready for questions from the non-flying public such as, "Would an Airport Authority -- whose board members are neither elected nor recallable by the citizens or Council of Payson -- be as responsive to the noise complaints that resulted in the shifting of the airport traffic pattern from the south side of the airport to the north side?"
An Airport Authority is not a "magic bullet" solution to airport self-sufficiency. If that were indeed so, one might reasonably ask, "Why don't all small airports have AAs?" and "Why hasn't Payson created an AA until now?"
In the creation of a new autonomous governing body to run its airport, Payson Town Council must ensure that the details of the new AA are "done right the first time." Once the AA is up and running, Council will not be able to fix, adjust or alter any structural shortcomings. This is the part that another Arizona town, Safford, did not get right with its AA.
As the local volunteer representative for the National Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, I contacted volunteers from other airports and solicited comments from those with an Airport Authority. Most of the responses were neither overly supportive nor overly negative in their opinions of AAs. A typical comment was something like, "AAs are neither good nor bad, just different (from normal airport management)" or "An airport can be well-managed or mismanaged by either traditional management or by an Airport Authority."
The most detailed and interesting response came from Safford Airport Manager Doug Benson.
Here is a brief summary: 1. Safford AA established. 2. AA builds cash reserves, does not spend money to maintain airport. 3. Safford AA spends money on itself instead of the airport. 4. Safford city government gets wind of this, attempts to abolish the AA. 5. The AA cannot be simply abolished. The matter goes to litigation. 6. The AA spends most of its cash reserve on legal fees to defend itself, loses in court and is ultimately abolished. 7. Safford Airport is managed directly by the City of Safford. This is what Payson must avoid by carefully getting the details right, in the creation of our Airport Authority. See the complete text of the Safford airport manager's account at: http://CAVUaviation.Homestead.com/AirportAuthority.html.
Due to financial, legal, regulatory or political reasons, Council may ultimately decide not to go ahead with the AA proposal. We should have a Plan B.
Assuming the publicly stated figure of $70,000 annual General Fund contribution to the airport is correct, it should be possible to bring airport revenues approximately equal to operating expenses by returning the airport to the administrative responsibility of the Town engineer. Have a single Town employee (the "Airport Operations Technician") dedicated to the "hands-on" maintenance activities at the airport. Although this Plan B does not have the advantages of an airport run by an autonomous AA, it would approach the long-sought goal of reducing the General Fund contribution to operate the airport.
I respectfully suggest that the current Town Council keep in mind the Payson Council of the 1970s, who -- as the story goes -- sold Payson's surface water rights in perpetuity to the Salt River Project for enough money to build a local community center. Thirty years later, we dryly regret their decision. Today's Town Council must look "above and beyond" the present need to ensure that in 30 years, our descendants admire the foresight, thoroughness and wisdom of today's decision-makers.