Originally created 09/17/00

Airport ignores funding



Imagine what an extra $10 million from the Federal Aviation Administration in the past 10 years could have done for Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field:

An airport master plan would be sitting on the airport director's desk; a terminal project would be halfway completed; a second runway probably would be finished; and the Augusta Aviation Commission would be in position to spend its time focused solely on improving airline service to Bush Field.

And most of these things could have been accomplished if the airport's leaders had applied for some of the FAA's discretionary funds.

They never did.

Instead, Augusta's Bush Field airport board has been bogged down in political spats and personality clashes among board members, city officials, even the FAA. The master plan is incomplete; the terminal project is on hold; and, as of Dec. 1, Delta will no longer be flying MD-88s to Augusta.

"Unfortunately, that's been the tone and timber of this airport," Aviation Commission member Ernie Smith said. "We've missed so many great opportunities. We're not watching the trends, not seeing how the aviation industry has changed. That's why we've been given this hand."

One of the biggest missed opportunities for Bush Field has been the airport's disregard for the FAA's discretionary funds program.

In the past 10 years, Savannah International Airport used this program to get an extra $20 million from the FAA. Savannah Airport Director Patrick Graham said the money helped expand the northwest section of the airport and build a new terminal.

That expansion, which began in the early 1990s, helped Savannah increase usage of the airport by about 300,000 people per year in six years.

Columbia Metropolitan Airport secured an extra $30 million from the discretionary fund program. The money paid for a navigational systems upgrade, a new runway apron, a second runway and extra cargo hangars. And when United Parcel Service went looking for a distribution center somewhere in the Southeast, Columbia was ready and waiting.

Even Daniel Field, Augusta's general aviation airport, applied for and got money: more than $2 million in the past 10 years, according to Buster Boshears, the airport's director.

But Bush Field hasn't gotten any discretionary funds to speak of - save an $87,000 grant for an airport layout plan in 1992 - because airport officials haven't applied.

"That's very strange," said Mike Black, director of Columbia Metropolitan Airport. "We wouldn't have gotten UPS without doing everything we did (with discretionary funds). A lot of it came down to us getting what they needed to come here, and when we did, then they did. We used a combination of PFC's (passenger facility charges) and federal money to fund our terminal expansion project.

"In this business, you have to stay ahead of the curve," Mr. Black said. "This is a changing business, and you have to be ahead of the changes; you can't be complacent. If you are, you fall behind."

Falling behind seems to be what Augusta Regional Airport has been doing for much of the past 10 years.

"If we had paid attention to this, maybe we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now," said Mr. Smith, who joined the aviation commission earlier this year.

Asked why the commission didn't go after these discretionary funds, Ed McIntyre, a board member since 1997, said, "I don't know."

The FAA pays for airport improvement projects in two ways: entitlement funds, based on an industry term called enplanements (the number of people using an airport), and discretionary funds.

Discretionary funds are all the money left over at the end of each fiscal year - in 1999, that amount was nearly $2 billion. The FAA, as required by federal law, must spend these funds as quickly as possible - they cannot be carried over to the next fiscal year.

The FAA determines which airports get these discretionary funds based on a list of priorities, starting with safety, capacity and competition. The money usually pays for 90 percent of the total cost of an airport's proposed project. A state's Department of Transportation chips in 5 percent, and the airport pays the rest, according to airport and FAA officials.

To be eligible for discretionary funds, an airport has to fit into the national airport development plan, which Bush Field does; it has to have an airport layout plan, which Bush Field does; and it has to have projects ready to go, which Bush Field does not, according to the FAA. It helps if there is a strong voice in Congress or the Senate lobbying the FAA to help a particular airport.

"And, of course, you have to apply for it," said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA's Atlanta office. "Augusta, apparently, has not done that."

It works like this: An airport sends the FAA a pre-application for the funds in May or June, basically telling the FAA, "We can do this project right away if you give us some money for it."

By August, the FAA responds and tells airport officials, "We've got money left over; your project seems solid; send us an application."

A second application is sent in and usually by October, the money for the project is on its way to the airport.

FAA officials won't say who is to blame for Bush Field's lack of effort. But airport experts with no connection to Augusta say everyone - airport directors, aviation commissioners and city planners - is to blame.

At a meeting in April 1999, former Augusta Regional Airport Director Al McDill stood in front of the aviation commission and spoke of the importance of developing a master plan, of spending FAA entitlement funds quickly and taking advantage of the FAA's discretionary funds.

"The key to success in (airport improvement) programs is to get your plans on the shelf, make use of your entitlement money and hopefully take advantage of discretionary funds," Mr. McDill told the board. "Entitlement money can prove to be peanuts if you get ahead of the planning curve and get your plans on the shelf so you can take advantage of discretionary funds as they become available."

Mr. McDill talked about the need for an updated master plan. The terminal area study, completed in 1995, did not focus on the entire airport property, he said at the time. The airport layout plan, developed by former Airport Director Hamp Manning in the early 1970s, was inadequate, he said.

But no one was listening.

In the past 18 months, the airport board has not completed a master plan, has not spent its entitlement money and has not applied for discretionary funds.

The only thing the commission did was fire Mr. McDill.

"Blaming the commission won't do us any good," Mr. Smith said. "The important thing now is that we recognize the problem and move forward with our vision."

The problem, according to several airport officials, is that the commission has been caught in political quicksand. It can never agree on how to spend entitlement money and has never placed much value on developing the airport's master plan or going after these discretionary funds.

In the mid-1990s, the commission seems to have been too caught up in fighting with the city over the development of man-made wetlands near the airport or the illegal transfer of $2 million from an airport account to a city account to cover a budgetary shortfall. The political tangles that ensued disrupted any progress the airport could have made during that time.

All the while, Augusta Regional Airport has been sliding into enplanement oblivion. The number of people using Bush Field has dropped steadily in the past 10 years, from a high of 250,000 in 1992 to a low of 198,726 in 1996. Enplanements are projected to be at 206,000 for 2000.

Fewer enplanements means less entitlement money. The entitlement Bush Field did get - about $1.1 million last year - has yet to be spent.

Originally slated for the design phase of a $25 million terminal improvement project, the money was reallocated for general runway apron improvements last month.

Meanwhile, the FAA has begun distributing discretionary funds again.

In the past 30 days, Jacksonville, Fla., received $2.7 million to upgrade its electrical system. Prattville, Ala., got $1.36 million to buy 168 acres for a general aviation airport. Alexandria, La., got $1.6 million for an apron rehab project and $4.5 million for the third phase of a terminal improvement project, and Wilmington, Del., received $2.06 million for phase II of a terminal rehab project.

Augusta Regional Airport, once again, did not apply.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.