2009 opening volleys on the airport

Priscilla Murphy's picture

Two opening volleys for 2009 on the airport controversy appeared in the CH Herald and the CH News respectively this Sunday.

An article by Neil Offen in the CHH ("National pilots group pushes for new airport") leads with: "A national pilots and aircraft owners group plans to meet with UNC system President Erskine Bowles early this year to push for the creation of a new airport in Orange County."  

Link:  http://heraldsun.southernheadlines.com/orange/10-1061492.cfm?

Thus, AOPA proclaims its first formal move of the year - no surprise other than their choice of Offen to open the curtain.  The article itself only skirts underlying issues in the controversy and sports only the briefest reference to AOPA's history on Horace Williams.  However, it does touch tricky ground when it echoes the disengenous idea that pilots serving on the authority would seriously consider "if a new airport should be built."

A real skew seems to appear when Offen writes that "the university's medical fleet" is "the biggest user of the airport." Describing AHEC as "the university's medical fleet" implies that the AHEC planes serve exclusively UNC's medical school's and hospital's needs.  By now, there's been more than enough discussion of AHEC that the media should know it's a state- and federally-funded program with the program director's office at UNC, but regional AHEC offices located all around the state, one as close as Duke.  The Medical Air fleet for AHEC is based at the UNC airport, but it's not UNC's medical fleet.

More pointedly, the local media by now should be well aware the majority of airport users are private pilots, so making AHEC a single entity is a perfect example of using statistics to tilt an argument.  Of course there's no other single user who represents almost a quarter of the traffic, but that still leaves more than 75% that are not AHEC planes.

In ironic contrast, the numbers are clear in Cliff Heath's opinion piece in the CH News ("Airport moves threaten reputation"): "Med Air flights used for AHEC-related business account for around 22 percent of the flights out of Horace Williams." 

Link:  http://www.chapelhillnews.com/opinion/story/34648.htm

Heath's excellent piece takes the position that the way decisions have been made are shameful and embarrassing for the university and the state.

What's particularly valuable about the piece is that he asks the core question, and does so at the outset:  "Why does UNC need a new UNC-owned, run and controlled airport?" - and he answers it himself: "...because UNC wants one."   Moreover, he asks the question in the very valid contexts of a deeply troubled economy, and the questionable and covert process used by University, airport advocates, and legislators.

However, by limiting the question to why UNC needs a new airport, rather than any airport at all, his argument loses something -- unless he is indirectly but purposely leaving open the option of keeping Horace Williams open indefinitely. 

He asks if it makes any sense to "frivolously spend $50 million for a new UNC airport after spending $3.5 million for a hanger at RDU and relocating AHEC?"  An obvious quick answer to that is not to spend any money at all to do either thing.  Better he should have asked whether it makes any sense ever to spend that $50 million?  Similarly, he could and should have asked how much it will ultimately save UNC - and taxpayers - to spend the $3.5 million on RDU facilities and leave AHEC there.

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Regarding both pieces: the core question is still whether UNC truly needs a general aviation airport in the first place. 

 

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Total votes: 1

16 Comments

Priscilla Murphy's picture

Says it all about AOPA's role

That press release says it all - thanks, Fred.  In it AOPA takes credit for formation of the Airport Authority, says it has long argued that HWA should remain open within CN (with no mention of compelling reasons to remove it from later plans), and depends on the economic downturn to keep HWA open a little longer until the new airport - which they claim University officials want - is built.  And of course they still mispresent AHEC as "a program that brings medical care to patients in rural North Carolina who would not otherwise have access to critical and special medical treatments."  The RDU option is 100% off their radar; and by that light, you can be sure they are working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn't happen.  I stand by my handicapping odds.(btw, does Offen have any connection to Jim Heavner other than being an occasional voice on WCHL?)

Priscilla Murphy's picture

Long national history

The article talks about the plight of small airports being "squeezed out" by development, sort of the opposite problem from OC's and therefore maybe not precisely  relevent -- yet it IS quite relevent (if 2 1/2 yrs. old) because it follows AOPA's favorite, repeated narratives: general aviation airports are huge economic assets under siege from short-sighted communities who carelessly disregard the valiant private pilots flying in service to the public (flying for health emergencies, fire-fighting, etc.).   Such articles appear whenever the AOPA PR machine gets in gear. There are parallel stories, however, of what happens to any municipality that tries to close an existing airport, including Chapel Hill and Fairview, Texas -- though the most entertaining involves Chicago's Meigs Field - also one of the very few cases in which AOPA lost.

WeaverGuy's picture

Airport.....size matters (?)

I heard a pilot's perspective on this recently.  The claim was that local regional airports, such as the one at Burlington and the one at Sanford, are far smaller affairs than implied by the term "regional."  If the one UNC is planning is to be on a similar scale, perhaps it would be viewed differently by some people. So, some of the issues do seem to boil down to the true scope of what is being planned, with accompanying questions, such as:  how does the size and scope of the university's plan compare with 1.  the current, Horace-Williams airport, and 2. with those other local airports?  Do such factors make a difference with respect to some of the objections to a new Orange County airport (setting aside, for the moment, the obviously flawed process that the university has undertaken in foisting an airport on people without meaningful stakeholder involvement).

Mark Marcoplos's picture

qualifying for federal block grant money

Initially, the airport was sized to have around a 5000 foot runway. This was based on the aviation traffic expected. Then somebody discovered that if the runway was - don't know the exact figure off the top of my head - at least 6200 feet or so, then federal money could be used.So - voila! - now we "need" a 6200+ feet runway.  

WeaverGuy's picture

Rumor control

There is a rumor going around that the university may be seeking now to purchase property for a new airport in OC, before the airport authority is constituted, and before the next study(ies) have been performed.  If they are able to purchase the land now, then will the airport be a fait acomplis?  Have landowners at the sites delineated in the previous study been contacted by anyone?  It would seem to be a relatively easy thing to check on.  What are the ramifications if there is truth to this rumor?

Priscilla Murphy's picture

The basic question is still

The basic question is still why the University has changed its mind about using RDU, decided it absolutely requires an airport to be used primarily by private pilots and no more convenient than RDU, and is now (once again) doing the bidding of general aviation .  Size matters from the point of view of footprint - not just runway and operations but also safety margins; and it matters from the point of view of type of plane (jets, etc.) using it; and it matters from the point of view of impact on infrastructure and absence from tax rolls.  The "regional" vs. not regional seems more a matter of semantics -- but clearly the OC airport is intended to be bigger than HWA to permit heavier use for more purposes, by a winder range of types of planes.Can't speak to the truth of the rumors, but speculation about likelihoods isn't crazy. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see separate parcels of land purchased not only by the university but also by plane owners for later "charitable donation" to the University, thereby enabling the Authority to appropriate the land in between the parcels by eminent domain.   Can't tell you how to document that, however.  And even then, you can't document intent without the help of a Deep Throat.....and I don't know what you could do with the info if you had it.      

WeaverGuy's picture

Some good points

Good points above.  If it can be documented that the university or (its de facto representatives) is purchasing, or getting options to purchase, land for an airport, then that would probably only be useful insofar as what the public response would be to that information in light of recent statements by the university about the process. As for size matters, it seems some people picture a bustling affair, surrounded by warehouses and shopping centers and other development.  That would seem to be what some of the economic development proponents picture.  But my pilot friend suggested that a small airport such as the one in Sanford or Burlington, if that is what we are talking about here, is a pretty small affair.  Runways, yes, and of course a reduction in taxable value (but actual tax revenues for several hundred acres or more don't seem that big a deal).   But what class of airport (there are a few...RDU is the biggest, but there are some smaller ones) is being considered would have some bearing here.  If we are talking about a couple of runways and a small building with a couple of toilets and some hangars, and some vending machines (see http://www.airport.unc.edu/) that is one thing.  If we are talking about a huge operation, with warehouses, shipping operations, accompanying surrounding development, restaurants, etc., then that is something else again.  It might get back to such questions also as the intended hours of operation (e.g. Horace Williams airport operates 0600-2100 Monday-Sunday).  What is the intention for the proposed airport...has that even been discussed?  Should it be on the table as some sort of stakeholder process unfolds (presuming that there has to be an airport, which of course is a horse of a different color)?  Of course it should.  Also, there are certain airport classifications--Airspace Class (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airspace_class) that have bearing....it depends on the type of navigation systems they support, and the like....have a look at the wikipedia article and ponder addressing this in discusions with the University....  (Parenthetically, RDU spent--or was it us?--something like $800 million on terminal C.  I hear the new terminal C is something to behold, as well it should be at these prices...lot's of economic value out there to take advantage of, one way or the other...isn't that one reason for the state to put some things like AHEC out there, using the WeaverGuy limo service, of course, with door to door pickup and delivery for the UNC MDs, internet service in the limo, and a wet bar for after they get back from a long day provided they are not on call, of course).  

Mark Marcoplos's picture

24/7 "unconstrained" operation

The plans call for a round-the-clock operation.I have had similar thoughts concerning the actual size, scope, & nuisance factor of an airport. As I traveled over the holidays, I saw many "small" airports. I realized that there would be many stretches of time when things would be relatively quiet - for those at least a half-mile away or so.I concluded that a 24/7 airport with a runway over a mile long would be a travesty in our area. The land it would take, the land it would pave, the people displaced, the community gutted, the run-off into the Haw, the night lights, the extra traffic, and on & on - not to mention the deep resentment that would be embedded in our community for a process that is directly at odds with anything remotely democratic or fair. Bottom line - since no persuading argument has been presented that UNC needs this airport, it's irrelevant to talk about the nuances of impacts of different size airports. It's a total unnecessary injustice from the start.

Priscilla Murphy's picture

Two comments

Two short (for me . . . ) comments:1. The tendency lately seems to be to assume it's the University that's driving events,
so that for many, it's the University that's the "enemy."  It's worth distinguishing Thorp's office from Bowles'  office from the Bd. of Governors from the Bd. of Trustees -- sentiments and intentions may not be the same throughout.  More to the point, however, is that AOPA's influence and say-so here are certainly germane and seem to be
driving what the University does; it certainly has driven what the legislature does. Missing that and targeting the University might backfire in the long run.2.Horace Williams would be considered a small airport by almost any measure - a single runway and only a couple of structures.  Nonetheless, its history has illustrated the drawbacks of even a small airport if situated in too dense an area.  One thing: you can't count on a limitation of hours.  These airports are used by transient traffic to refuel (plane and sometimes passengers), and their stopovers can be at all hours. Similarly, if there's a lot of pre- and post-game traffic around b-ball and football, you'll get lots of odd-hour traffic. When the Flying Club was based at HWA, the curfew agreed on wih the town was routinely broken until it was finally rescinded by CD Spangler at the same time he opened the airport to
jets.  

WeaverGuy's picture

Process

It is good to bear in mind that there may be different agendas within the university's hierarchies.As has been noted, the whole process followed has
been flawed.  Not involving the stakeholders in making the very
decision that an airport is needed violated basic principles, many of
which have bearing on a successful outcome.  The stakeholders ought to
have been involved way further back, including the decision to even do
the study done by the airport "experts."  Now, offering to involve the
stakeholders in the siting decision compounds the problems because this
offer implies that an airport is necessary.  Yet the university's study
shows RDU is the best option.  Talk about working oneself into a corner. Clearly,
there needs to be parallel tracks here.  One is questioning the very
need for an airport.  Another is questioning the type of airport that
is being proposed.The airline pilots association might be willing to back off to a certain Airspace Class.  Again, that has a big bearing on the size and scope of airport that would be built, its cost, and its consequences.

Catherine DeVine's picture

Chiming in here

Horace Williams is a small airport; not only that, it's very hard to spot in the middle of town, especially after dark.  Seasoned pilots like Bob Epting don't think so.  I still wish the university would keep HWA in operation.  Tht would solve the problem on the table.  Am I imagining more traffic than usual in and out of HWA, or am I simply more attuned to it lately?  It's not the least bit disruptive, and I live a scant mile away.  Now this talk of a mile-long runway.  If UNC wants to build a "new" airport, with all kinds of economic benefits to the county, yes: there should be an air cargo facility (i.e. FedEx jumpers and other delivery services) which might actually attract undesirable development nearby. I seriously doubt that a people-carrier such as Northwest Airlines would land there.  Not even a mile-long runway would entice them; UNC is not in the business of supporting the travel industry.  They might, however, support WeaveGuy's idea of courrier service for people and stuff to and from the rural SMALL airport.  Precious cargo only.  

Priscilla Murphy's picture

The right answer is still RDU.

As you put it yourself, HWA is an airport in the middle of town;  and it would be even more in the middle of things in Carolina North.  An airport doesn't belong in the middle of anything except where there's enough space to ensure safety to everyone and proper accommodation to the community.  Whether the town should have been allowed to grow where it has and whether CN is a great idea are separate issues. Whether an airport should better be kept in a populous area in preference to a rural area raises obvious questions of logic.And for what it's worth, saying an airport doesn't much bother people living within a mile of it depends a great deal on which direction relative to the runway they are.  The more directly north or south you are of an east-west runway, especially one with prescribed approach and departure paths, the less you are affected by the traffic.  But yes, there does seem to be a little more traffic lately, possibly related to UNC sports, holidays, and perhaps political activities, but who knows.  Keeping HWA open solves no problems other than general aviation's and rural OC's.  It costs the University (and taxpayers) money.  It would drastically increase costs for CN or even pre-empt it altogether, given the necessary buffer zones around the runway.  And it remains a burden on town - and county - infrastructure that can only increase.  The right answer is RDU.  We already know that from the T&B report, as well as from the assessment of many others.  Yet both press and commentators keep glossing over or outright ignoring it.  The only actual discussion about it seems to focus on time-management for pediatric specialists.  But in a time of extreme economic pressure, it's clearly the most fiscally sane arrangement for the University, and it's the one that best serves all residents of Orange County, both town and country.