Auburn to examine future of municipal airport

Auburn has one of the state
Auburn has one of the state's busiest municipal airports. The City is mulling its future arrangement with the FAA over the function and control of the airport.
— image credit: Reporter file photo

Auburn Municipal Airport and its owner, the City of Auburn, are struggling in the chains that bind them to the Federal Aviation Administration, Mayor Pete Lewis told members of the Municipal Services Committee on Monday.

Chains forged and drawn tight with each loan the City accepts from the FAA for the maintenance or improvement of the 44-year-old commuter airport, as such loans create an obligation to the FAA and grant it sway that continues for the term of the loan.

If Auburn, Lewis said, is to be denied almost any function at the airport that isn't purely an aircraft, its leaders may want to consider whether the City should keep accepting those loans and indeed, whether in the long term the City should own an airport at all.

"If we are to be told that we are only to be of a certain size, only to be able to do certain functions, and only in certain ways, is it something that we wish to continue?" Lewis asked.

Lewis added that this is not a problem demanding immediate action, but "it's something for council members to start thinking about because of those limitations that the FAA has put on this airport," Lewis said. "We can't make improvements, we can't close it, we can't change it unless approved by the FAA."

Councilman Wayne Osborne, a former air traffic controller, argued strongly against the City's divesting itself of the airport.

"That airport is a a crown jewel of the city ... it's something that a lot of other cities don't have," Osborne said. "And you could do a lot of economic development around that if certain things were to happen in the future. I think there's advantage to having it. That land (on the west side of the airport) is also worth quite a bit of money, although a certain amount of it is wetland."

Besides, Osborne continued, this business about FAA control is not exactly a new problem – the federal government has held a lot of sway over what happens at the airport since the City built and opened it in 1968, he said.

"It didn't come to light over night, it's been going on all along," Osborne said. "Years and years since the airport was put in and they've been taking FAA money. I've said it before, I'll say it again: free money is not free, and this is one of those situations."

Lewis countered that the time had come to reassess the situation because FAA control today is much more constricting than it was in 1968.

"It's not just a matter of having accepted federal money. If the City accepts a loan from the FAA, then at best, it is 20 years from the time the last loan is paid off before the City can do anything with its own airport," Lewis said.

Recently the FAA decided to deny Green River Community College's aviation training program a place at the airport, rubbing raw nerves that were already enflamed by FAA control.

Lewis suggested Council could make a statement that it would no longer accept federal money and "start the clock ticking" on when there might be some alternative made of the airport if the FAA continues to be so strict in its interpretations.

"Our ability to use the property as we so desire is up to the FAA, and not the City of Auburn," Lewis said.

"It doesn't sound very fair. ... This gives me heartburn," said Councilwoman Largo Wales.

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