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Small Indiana Airports Work To Offset Shrinking Funding

  • Putnam County Propeller Plane

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    Photo: Alex Dierckman

    A propeller plane sits on the Putnam County Airport runway.

  • Pilots Gather for coffee at Virgil Grissom Airport

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    Photo: Alex Dierckman

    Pilots gather for coffee and donuts at the Virgil Grissom Airport in Bedford, Indiana

  • Runway safety area is a 18ft drop into trees and bushes

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    Photo: Alex Dierckman

    A safety area at the end of a runway at Virgil Grissom Airport is an 18 ft. drop into trees and bushes.

  • French Lick Airport Terminal

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    Photo: Alex Dierckman

    The French Lick Airport terminal building, finished in 2009, was designed by the Cook Group.

This is the second part of a two-part series.

Small airports across the state of Indiana have bounced back since the financial crisis in 2008 and are finding ways to offset shrinking federal, state and local funding.

The Cost of Fixing A Runway

It is likely the most expensive hamburgers in Indiana are not sold at high-end restaurants. Instead, the concept of the hundred-dollar hamburger originated at the state’s small airports. To be fair, it is not the bun, ground beef or pickles that make the hamburgers pricey. It is how people get to the table in the first place.

Small airports increasingly rely on revenue generated by meeting rooms, space they rent to universities and their restaurants.  And with the cost of flying a small plane often north of one hundred dollars an hour, the price of that quarter-pounder goes up almost as quickly as a plane from the runway.

But burgers do not build runways.

Though the Putnam County Airport in Greencastle gets dozens of weekend visitors to fly in for breakfast, it still needs more money to fix its runway.  That’s because when the runway was lengthened a couple years ago, that meant a hump in the pavement used to slow planes as they land is now in the wrong place. So it has to be flattened, a second bump built up elsewhere and the whole runway repaved.

To pay for that $311,000 project, the board of aviation commissioners has spent months asking for private donations.

Board member Duane Skoog says the airport gets financial support from the county, but the public needs to understand and support the economic development the airport brings in, too.

“We enjoy a very strong allegiance with the community and the county government,” he says. “They really view it as an asset. Both economically…and there’s a hotel here next to the airport, a restaurant, lots of wedding receptions, and community events occur in the hangar.”

Though small planes like this one can use Bedford’s Virgil Grissom Airport, named for the Hoosier astronaut, with no problem, its 4,500 feet of runway, is still 501-feet shy of new FAA requirements for servicing jets.

Manager Ray Sexton says the project includes adding a safety landing area- a grassy flatland designed to slow aircraft that can’t come to a complete stop by the end of the runway. The current “safety area” involves an 18-foot drop into a tree- and bush-filled culvert.

The project would cost approximately $1.2 million. But when it comes to getting the money, Sexton says officials must make friends with politicians to get money.

“I hate to go to politics to try to get something. I’d rather just be able to send in a project and they say, yes, this looks good enough, we will fund that project,” he says. “Sometimes you have to use your political friends, and I don’t like doing that, but that’s life. So yes, if we need to use those people again, the US Congress and our local congress men, we’ll do that to try to get the project done.”

Benefiting From Donations

But there are other powerful people who help fund airports, too. South of Bedford, the French Lick Airport, like the rest of the town, benefited from a huge influx of donations from the late philanthropist Bill Cook and his real estate company.

When the area’s casino and resort business began to bloom again, so did business at the airport, which Cook donated furniture, vehicles and design expertise to, says Airport Manager Zach Brown.

“In the past, this airport used to be a very small airport,” he says. “And now it is starting to expand because of the number of clients that fly in here and obviously what is guiding the town members to see the airport is going,” he says. “It kind of feeds off the casino and the hotel.”

But the bulk of small airport funding comes from the Federal Aviation Administration and its  Airport Improvement Program, or AIP, which disperses funding for projects. Money from the AIP comes primarily from the ticket tax money that travelers pay- not tax dollars.

FAA Great Lakes Region spokesman Tony Molinaro says the AIP uses an application process to decide which airport changes to fund.

“The FAA truly looks at priorities for the AIP program really according to formulas and what’s important not only for the safety and security but to what makes more sense from an efficiency standpoint,” he says.

Managers of small airports are weary from cuts wrought by federal sequestration. But they remain hopeful the demand for small airport services will take off once again.

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