Civil Air Patrol pilot Raun Hamilton, left, and Delbert Sinor, a charter pilot and mechanic, fly general aviation aircraft in and out of Springfield. Although GAs have taken some heat lately, area pilots say federal money for the facilities is justified by the economic activity they create.
Civil Air Patrol pilot Raun Hamilton, left, and Delbert Sinor, a charter pilot and mechanic, fly general aviation aircraft in and out of Springfield. Although GAs have taken some heat lately, area pilots say federal money for the facilities is justified by the economic activity they create.
Recent news reports questioning federal funds funneled to the country's general aviation airports have rankled pilots and businesspeople - including some in Springfield - who rely heavily on the noncommercial network and contribute to its economic impact.

A 2004 study that surveyed 114 general aviation airports throughout Missouri estimated that the facilities generated $1.1 billion in economic activity for the Show-Me State. The airports, which mostly serve smaller communities, employed 11,000 people statewide with a combined payroll of almost $364 million, according to data compiled by South Carolina-based Wilbur Smith & Associates for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The current economic impact is unknown, but those who use the airports in Missouri and other states for business and leisure travel said the facilities are well worth the money they're receiving through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Raun Hamilton, a 20-year private pilot who flies out of Springfield mainly for business, said GA airports are vital to local economies -- a point he said was largely overlooked in a recent USA Today article.

Last month, the newspaper reported that Congress had directed $15 billion over 28 years to GA airports through the FAA's Airport Improvement Program. The program - bolstered by federal stimulus money - doled out a record $1.2 billion this year, according to the Sept. 17 article, which concluded that most GA airports receiving the money are "vastly underused."

Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, rejected the notion that GA airports are receiving a disproportionate share of AIP funds, which are derived from fees assessed on commercial airline tickets and fuel taxes paid by private pilots.

"This is the way local communities that do not have air-carrier airports get access to the National Airspace System," he said. "These local airports have a significant beneficial impact on the local economy, on local businesses. And, in many cases, businesses will choose to locate in a community that has a vibrant general aviation airport."

GA amenities at SGF lacking

Springfield does not have a publicly owned standalone GA airport, but municipal airports in Bolivar, Monett, Mount Vernon and West Plains are among those that have received AIP funds.

The only standalone GA airport in Springfield is the Downtown Airport on East Division Street. The facility is privately owned by Harry Cooper Supply Co. owner Harry Cooper and is not eligible for AIP funding.

The GA terminal at Springfield-Branson National Airport is eligible to receive the grants, but it wasn't among this year's recipients.

The airport, which has secured more than $74 million in AIP funds since 2003 primarily for the midfield terminal and related improvements, last received FAA money earmarked for GA operations in 2002. Airport spokesman Kent Boyd said the $4.1 million grant was used to purchase Air Park South in Ozark -- 200 acres the airport has been trying to sell since 2006 when plans to expand GA operations in Christian County stalled due to the high cost of adjacent land.

Hamilton, vice president and general manager at Springfield-based Electronic Video Systems, was a proponent of expanding GA operations in Ozark. He said the airport would have been a well-utilized transportation portal for local businesspeople traveling out of the area as well as tourists flying in.

Once the Ozark land is sold, Boyd said there's a possibility the proceeds could be used for upgrades at the Springfield airport's GA terminal, which includes a government-run fixed-base fuel operation that some local businesspeople think also could benefit from competition. Past attempts to bring in private players, however, have been repeatedly blocked by airport management, said Mark Burgess, a pilot who co-owns OzAir Charter Services.

Burgess said FBOs at most airports he flies into are privately operated entities that go out of their way to accommodate pilots and business travelers.

"They avoid Springfield like the plague," he said. "What you can't get across to the city leaders of this town is the people coming to this town who are going to build factories and bring corporate business ... are not coming in to that airline terminal across the field. They're coming into the GA facility."

Loren Cook II agreed with Burgess that privatization is the best way to improve the airport's GA services and attract more business. Cook is vice president of Springfield-based manufacturer Loren Cook Co., which owns a corporate jet based at the airport. Cook said many airports have more than one fixed-base operator who vie for the business of arriving aircraft; national outfits like Million Air and Signature Flight Support are among the best, he said.

"(Springfield's GA terminal) doesn't really offer a lot in terms of the amenities that other private fixed-base operators offer," Cook said. "Usually, when you fly into other cities our size, you get choices. In Springfield, you don't have a choice."

Business travelers drive business

In fiscal 2009, which ended June 30, the Springfield-Branson airport's GA operation brought in about $2.2 million from hangar rentals, fuel sales and service charges, according to figures provided by Boyd. Expenditures totaled $1.5 million, and the airport's net profit was roughly $400,000 after depreciation.

Situated on the airport's east side, the GA terminal - opened in 1990 - serves an array of customers that include Springfield's most recognizable companies as well as small-business owners like Hamilton who rent or own aircraft. Great Southern Bank, Bass Pro Shops, Assemblies of God, BKD LLP and Prime Inc. are just a few of the companies that have corporate aircraft stationed at the airport, Boyd said.

"The reality is that, here in town, general aviation is maxed out," he added. "We've got a waiting list with over 50 names on it. ... Since 9/11, the demand for private corporate travel has increased to avoid the hassle of going through security. It's quicker, in essence."

AOPA's Dancy said FAA pilot surveys confirm what the industry knows to be true about GA airports and terminals: They're heavily utilized for business purposes.

"About 70 percent of all general aviation flight hours are in support of business," he said.

Pilot Hamilton said his business depends heavily on Springfield's GA operations and those in other smaller markets. He routinely flies a Piper Cherokee Lance into a regional GA airport in Marion, Ill., where a longtime client is based. Flying privately out of Springfield makes business travel both convenient and cost-effective, Hamilton said.

"Quite frankly, I couldn't have justified even thinking about owning a plane here in Springfield if it wasn't for the high cost of flying commercial (airlines) in and out of here," he said, adding that he recently sold his share in the plane but still has access to it.

Hamilton said GA airports also benefit communities beyond the transportation channels they provide to businesses. He volunteers for Angel Flight, a charitable organization that provides free air travel to medical patients headed to major medical centers for surgeries or special treatment, and is a captain with the Civil Air Patrol, the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.