9 Investigates: Are Oklahoma's Rarely Used Airports A Waste Of Money?

Monday, May 6th 2013, 4:49 pm
By: News 9

Visitors to Lake Murray State Park Airport are more likely to see a deer than a pilot.

A person could lie in the runway and wait weeks before a plane touches down.

Even as it closes air traffic control towers and considered furloughing air traffic controllers in response to sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration continues to give as much as $150,000 a year to hundreds of airports that are barely used – including 13 in Oklahoma that don’t have a single plane based there.

“During peak season, we see about five to 10 airplanes a month, and then during the off-season we could go months without seeing an airplane,” said Wesley Chaney, who manages the golf course adjacent to Lake Murray State Park Airport.

Lake Murray airport is one of 40 “unclassified” airports in Oklahoma, which has more than any other state. There are 497 nationwide. In many cases, these airports don’t have the traffic to remain in the national airport system and be eligible for federal funds. Yet they continue to collect the money because, owing to a quirk in the law, they can transfer it to higher-priority airports. And once airports are added to the national network, they rarely leave.

“With the general aviation entitlement program, we were able to address that huge backlog of needs” at the state’s general-aviation airports, said Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission.

In the case of Lake Murray, $350,000 have been transferred elsewhere – including to Ardmore Municipal, a larger, jet-ready airport that is five miles away.

Gage Airport is another of the lightly used airports to receive the regular funds. The airport, which is located 20 miles west of Woodward, doesn’t have any planes based there or regular traffic.

Still, Airport Manager Richard Chapman argues that it’s critical to his 4,500-person county because it provides a place for air ambulance services and corporate jets going and to and from the oil patch to land. Crop dusters use the airport in the summer, and a corporate farm nearby attracts planes.

“We’re providing a service to our county,” he said.

The town used the FAA grants to re-pave 2,800 feet of the 5,000-foot runway.

“You just hate to see it sit there and crumble. We don’t know what the need might be for it in 10 or 20 years,” he said.

Responding to airports’ complaints, Congress changed the law in 2003 to allow airports to transfer funds to airports with more pressing needs, creating the current system in which barely used airports pass through money to their busier counterparts.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., highlighted the airport in his 2012 “Wastebook” – an annual compendium of projects the budget hawk considers examples of government spending run amok. In the report, Coburn called the airport “a layover to land government money.”

“It’s just a total lack of common sense and effective management,” Coburn said in an interview with 9 Investigates. “It was used as a sugar daddy for the other airports,” he said.

While the program may have made sense at one time, he said, “We ought to spend the next dollar on the thing that benefits the country the most.”

Oklahoma’s other senator, Jim Inhofe, a well-known aviator and staunch supporter of private pilots, disagreed that the program has outlived its usefulness.

“Rural communities in Oklahoma rely on general aviation aircraft that use small airports to meet many business and personal needs, particularly in the agriculture and energy industries,” Inhofe said.

Closing Lake Murray Airport would mean paying back $184,000 that has been spent there and depriving the airport of its annual subsidy. Federal law requires airports that accept grant money to remain open for 20 years or pay back what they received.

The state Department of Tourism and Recreation oversees the Lake Murray and three other state-park airports. The agency spends about $7,500 a year on upkeep at Lake Murray and has twice asked the Aeronautics Commission to close it.

Last summer, the Aeronautics Commission turned down the Tourism Department’s request to close the airport, citing the $150,000-a-year loss as reason to keep it open. Earlier this year, the commission reversed course and decided to close the airport. But it may be years before the airport closes, and it will continue to collect money until that time.

“To maintain this air strip that we felt like was not used was something that seemed like a waste,” said Claudia Conner, Tourism deputy director, who started asking questions about the airport and pushed for its closure. “When it’s closed, that will satisfactorily address my concerns,” she said.

Aeronautics officials say they have no choice but to keep the airport open. The FAA says it has received the state’s request to close the airport and is evaluating it.

“We don’t want to waste money,” Bird said. “We, in the interest of trying to make the best use of these dollars, have utilized the transfer authority as much as we possibly can and as much as we feasibly can to put these dollars where they're most needed,” he said.

According to the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, the airport averages 100 takeoffs and landings a year. Other airports that are in the $150,000 club average the same number or fewer: Talihina Municipal Airport averages 100, while Healdton Municipal averages 10 and Okemah Municipal averages five.

See a map showing all of Oklahoma’s federally supported general aviation airports, with additional information on 13 that host zero aircraft

But at Lake Murray, those needs apparently weren’t too pressing. A 2006 grant paid to design a lighting system, and a large electrical box was installed a year later to control the lights; it was never hooked up, however, because the lights were never installed. The last improvement to the airport came with the addition of a wind cone in 2007.

Chaney is baffled by where the money went.

“You know, I’m not sure what they’re spending the money on. I know that they’re not spending it here,” he said.