BELFAST, Maine — On a crisp autumn day, the blue skies above Belfast were dotted by small airplanes that looked like mere toys when seen from the ground below.
Those planes land and take off from Belfast Municipal Airport, a small, city-owned facility that is home to a flight school and charter service and 24 hangars that house privately owned planes.
The city provides the airport with a manager and pays for general maintenance and upkeep. But when it comes to getting major projects done — like expanding the apron, so a wider variety of planes can safely use the airport — the city relies on assistance from federal grants from the Airport Improvement Program. Since 2007, Belfast Municipal Airport has received $701,079 in grants that have allowed it to build the apron and acquire land for development.
“I view the airport as another gateway to Belfast, kind of like the harbor,” Thomas Kittredge, the city’s economic development director and airport manager, said recently. “An airport can be a revenue generator for the city.”
But federal costs for the state’s publicly funded airports add up fast. Thirty airports in Maine have received more than $168 million from the government for capital improvement projects since 2007. Those projects were as small as $4,180 to acquire land for development at Millinocket Municipal Airport and as large as $9.3 million to expand the apron at Portland International Jetport. Municipalities and the Maine Department of Transportation have to pay for a small percent of qualified projects that win the grants, but the lion’s share of the costs are funded through the Federal Aviation Administration.
Just a handful of airports in the state host commercial airlines — the Jetport, Bangor International Airport, Northern Maine Regional Airport at Presque Isle, Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton and Augusta State Airport chief among them. The rest of the publicly funded airports primarily serve general aviation purposes. Small, privately owned planes land there, people often can learn to fly there and companies use them to improve their ability to do business in and out of Maine.
“The federal funding is important for projects for us,” said Caleb Curtis, who owns Curtis Air and manages day-to-day operations at Pittsfield Municipal Airport.
The airport has received more than $1.5 million since 2007 in order to do major projects. Those recently have included redoing the runway, which was original to the 1940s when the airport was built, and redoing the airport’s ramp.
“Aviation is a really important infrastructure to have. Not only for businesses, but for people to come to the area,” Curtis said. “A lot of people don’t know much about aviation. They think it’s these high, elite guys who are using the service; that’s not the case. We’re not talking about the super-rich people. These guys, instead of spending $10,000 on a snowmobile every year, they have an airplane. It’s a recreation that a lot of people are involved with.”
One of the misconceptions that many involved in aviation would like to clear up is the belief that the federal money for airports comes from a broad-based tax. That’s not the case. The Airport and Airway Trust Fund is supported by taxes on airline tickets, aviation fuel and use of international air facilities.
“Essentially, it’s a user-based thing,” Scott Wardwell, the airport director for Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle, said. “If you never flew in your life, you would never contribute to the upkeep of airports.”
Jeff Northgraves, the airport manager for Knox County Regional Airport, said that he understands the price tag for airport projects can seem too expensive to some people, who are shocked that it can cost $1 million for a wildlife fence.
“The bottom line is, it’s coming from a pot of money that passengers have put in so that they’ll be safe when they fly,” he said.
Because of the nature of the taxes that fund the airport improvement grants, even conservative government watchdog group The Maine Heritage Policy Center doesn’t get too worked up about millions being spent at some of the state’s small airports — though many of those only serve the small segment of the population which needs general aviation services.
“You can argue about ‘that’s enough money for these,’” Scott Moody, the think tank’s CEO, said this week. “But the fact that they are user fees makes them a little more palatable and less economically destructive than, say, a broad-based tax. For the most part, as long as they are self-funding, we have much less of an issue.”
In fact, airports in Maine do better than that, according to a 2006 economic impact study done for the Maine Department of Transportation. The study looked at economic benefits attributable to the state’s 36 publicly owned commercial service and generation aviation airports. That figure includes some airports which have not recently received Airport Improvement Grants, such as Islesboro Municipal Airport.
At that time, almost 21,000 jobs were connected to Maine’s airports, with an estimated payroll of $487.9 million. The total economic activity associated with the airports was estimated to be more than $1.5 billion, according to the study.
Kittredge said that the airport in Belfast supports several of the city’s businesses, including athenahealth and the Front Street Shipyard, as well as possibly enticing a different type of tourist to visit the community.
“If we could make our airport attractive to pilots, they will come to Belfast to spend money,” he said.
J.B. Turner of Front Street Shipyard said that many of his customers use the airport, and potential customers always ask if there is one nearby.
“It’s an economic growth opportunity for Belfast,” he said. “It’s a way to connect to Belfast easily for people who do have private planes.”
Some airport managers, including Wardwell, believe that the economic growth opportunities would be better if FAA safety regulations were not constantly being ratcheted up.
“The public wants and expects the safest air system possible,” he said, describing the additional safety regulations that have been put in place over the last decade as “astronomical.”
His small airport has to adhere to the same regulations as much larger, busier airports, he said, arguing that the one-size-fits-all approach to safety is just not working. The FAA, however, disagrees with this idea.
“The FAA is focused on maintaining the world’s safest aviation system for the traveling public, including airport infrastructure,” an agency spokesman who declined to be named said Friday. “The agency works with our nation’s airports to ensure their local economic viability and that we maintain our high safety standards. As part of that, the FAA’s airport improvement program provides financial assistance to airports for safety equipment and capital needs required by safety regulations.”
But Wardwell said that people might be safer if regulations at smaller airports are reduced. That would lower ticket costs at airports like his and lure travelers back from larger, cheaper airports that are farther away. This way people would forgo long drives on highways where accidents are not unusual.
“It’s common knowledge that you’re much safer in an airplane,” he said. “In reality, we could potentially make people safer by reducing the regulations at smaller airports and cutting the costs.”