Community Airports Are Disappearing

March 05, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Once they thrived. Now they're being shut down, sold off, abandoned.

They are community airports, and Maryland has lost five in the past decade. Five more of the state's 29 small public airports could close in the next decade.

Across the country, these airports are closing at a rate of one a week, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

It is the 5,500 small airports, not the 28 major hubs like Baltimore-Washington International, that form the backbone of the country's aviation network. For every commercial flight, there are four flights from community airports.

MedEvac helicopters and traffic reporters use these airports, as do banks to deposit checks and hospitals to ferry organs for transplants.

"They really are an endangered species," Jon Buck, a regional aviation officer for the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), said of the small airports. "We like to see them survive into the next century. If they go, where are the next airline pilots going to come from?"

The biggest threat is from suburban sprawl and homeowners who don't want an airport in their neighborhood. These and other economic forces combined to close an average of 45 public airports each year between 1981 and 1991, says the AOPA.

"The awe of aviation has gone," said Florence Parlett, 89, who managed Lee Airport in Edgewater from 1957 until last April. "[Today] it's a matter of fact that people fly."

Some airport owners have decided to sell their land to developers, rather than pay high property taxes or deal with capital improvements. A new 2,000-foot runway at Fallston Airport cost $61,000. The new gas tanks at Lee Airport cost $30,000.

These expenses don't make it easy for owners to stay in the business because most airports just break even.

At Lee, pilot fees pay for maintenance and the land lease. Family savings cover other expenses.

"We don't make a living from the airport," said Donald Parlett Sr., whose family has run the airport since 1957. The family's moneymaker is the Arundel Gas and Water Conditioning Co. it owns in Edgewater. The Parletts have kept the business because they "enjoy seeing people fly and enjoying the aviation experience," Mr. Parlett said.

For aviators, losing an airport means having one less place to enjoy their hobby and park their planes. At most airports the waiting lists for space are years' long.

"Some people play tennis, some play golf," said Frank C. Fields, 60, who owns two planes based at Suburban Airport in Laurel. "This becomes our little heaven just like the people with their boats in the Chesapeake Bay."

An aviation boom swept the country after Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in 1927. Barnstormers and aerial daredevils thrilled crowds between the world wars. People turned spare farmland and empty fields into fledgling airports.

Back then, those airstrips were seen as signs of progress. Today, people are worried about their own safety. Two planes crashed near Suburban Airport last year. One of them smashed into a home's roof.

"We're not opposed to the airport; we're concerned," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, whose community lies a couple of miles from Suburban. "If a plane is going to die in the sky, there's only one place to go. The only advantage we have is that they're not 747s."

Though no one was hurt in either of Suburban's crashes, homeowners want limits on the airport, home to about 75 single-engine planes.

It is this kind of activism that is forcing pilots all around to accept their neighbors, to talk with them and seek common ground.

"The key line pilots used to use was, 'The airports was here first,'" said Phil Boyer, president of the AOPA, based in Frederick. "We're beginning to change that. It's an old line. It doesn't work. We can sit here and shout, 'We were here first' until the airport closes."

Last year the AOPA distributed a 200-page guide on how pilots can help save their airports.

The handbook advises pilots to listen to their neighbors' concerns, sponsor open houses and make neighbors feel that the airport is theirs. About 6,000 copies have been mailed. Last month the association started handing out a video on how pilots can change flight patterns to be friendly to neighbors below.

Doug McNeeley, 44, manager of Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, gives tours to 100 school groups each year, sponsors an aviation day (last year it drew 15,000 people) and gives out glossy brochures about the airport.

It's not just a public relations ploy. When a neighbor complains about a noisy plane, Mr. McNeeley finds the pilot and makes sure the flight pattern is changed.

"The airport is going to be here for the foreseeable future," said Mr. McNeeley, who keeps his AOPA guide handy in his office. "Obviously, the communities will be here in the foreseeable future. I think it's important for us to get along."

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