Regional airports taxi for new role

State sees runways as paths to develop neighboring towns

Aid money is on the way

October 24, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Suburban Airport doesn't really have a lounge, it has two yard-sale sofas and a coffee pot.

And airport manager Charlie Crew doesn't wear a suit, he wears something more appropriate for pushing the vacuum cleaner or planning the next cookout or manning the radio or paying the bills.

Suburban Airport is unapologetically small-time, tucked beneath the flight paths of the big-time airports near Baltimore and Washington. There's one short runway, most of the hangars are tents and about 75 propeller-driven airplanes call it home. Crew figures the place wouldn't even have all that if not for the government support he gets.

"I'll tell you, just about anything they can give us, we need," said Crew, who has managed Suburban Airport for about four years. "There really isn't that much money in this business."

Small-airport operators throughout Maryland could be getting more money soon, courtesy of the governor and David Blackshear, director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

As one of the first initiatives since he took office in August, Blackshear said he plans to put new emphasis on Maryland's 34 small regional airports, including a $300,000 campaign for runway maintenance and improvements and as much as $75,000 for a new marketing campaign. The goal is to keep small airports in small towns from going out of business, hoping they can become economic engines for jobs and tax revenue proportionate to what big airports produce for big cities.

"There are a lot of reasons why it's important for these airports to prosper, but it all comes down to economic development -- what they do for the communities around them," Blackshear said.

Maryland has 36 public-use airports scattered throughout the state. They are open to anyone who wants to land an aircraft there -- as long as the runways are long enough.

Two of them, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Martin State Airport, are owned by the Maryland Aviation Administration and are not part of the new initiative.

Several airports, such as Hagerstown Regional Airport and Carroll County Regional Airport, are publicly owned and eligible for federal money for most projects. The state contributes 5 percent of the cost of federally funded improvements. The rest of Maryland's airports are like Suburban -- small, privately owned businesses with little more than an airstrip and a fuel pump. Some can accommodate small jets, most can't. Propeller-driven recreational aircraft are the norm.

The smaller airports already get help from the government. They are eligible for property tax exemptions for their runways and surrounding land. Safety devices such as windsocks, runway lights, fire extinguishers and directional aids also are lent to airports for free and maintained by the state.

But even with government assistance, most struggle to stay in business. They lease space to aircraft owners. They sell fuel, give flying lessons and run maintenance shops. The revenue often pays little more than the overhead.

At Suburban, aircraft can land for free and pay as little as $2 to stay for an afternoon, Crew said. The airport makes enough to pay him a small salary. The remainder goes back into the business.

"You can make a small fortune in aviation," said Bruce Mundie, head of the state's Office of Regional Aviation Assistance. "You just have to start with a very large fortune."

With so many small airports strapped for money, conditions there have deteriorated, Mundie said. The primary component of the state's new initiative will be a survey of all the airports to determine how runways can be made safer, and easier to maintain.

It is expensive. At Davis Airport in Laytonsville, where the asphalt runway has become cracked and weeded almost beyond usefulness, a resurfacing project is expected to cost as much as $200,000.

Through the Office of Regional Aviation Assistance, the state will pay half the cost of such projects, as long as the airport owners promise the site will remain an airport for the life of the project -- usually about 10 years. Most airports don't need as much work as Davis, but even small projects can cost a lot of money.

"When you're talking about paving a driveway, that's expensive," Mundie said. "Take something that's a couple of thousand feet longer and a heck of a lot wider, and you have quite a project. And it's the runway we're talking about -- it's the lifeblood of the airport."

State officials say the government has an interest in making sure Maryland has all the airports it needs, both large and small.

Even a small 1,800-foot runway -- large commercial runways are more than 10,000 feet long -- is a piece of the state's transportation network, available for commuters in small planes and business executives who prefer not to drive. Most of the regional airports are also part of the state's emergency response plans for rescues and natural disasters. Helicopters can land and refuel there, for instance.

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