Paving the Way Forward
How Federal Airport Grants Provide the Lifeblood for U.S. Airport Safety and Infrastructure
By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Managing Editor
With the stroke of a pen by President Harry S. Truman on May 13, 1946, the Federal Airport Act became law, establishing the first program to provide federal investment for airport infrastructure and development of the nation’s civil airports. First up to receive a grant was Twin Falls, Idaho, where a new airport was constructed for about $647,000, of which $384,000 were federal funds. Over the following 75 years, the government has distributed $96 billion, (yes, with a “b”) through grant programs to fund more than 82,300 airport projects. These grants have helped promote safety, security, efficiency, environmental stewardship, and infrastructure improvements at airports big and small across the nation.
Airport grant programs have existed in three forms, beginning in 1946 with the Federal-Aid Airport Program, then the more comprehensive Airport Development Aid Program in 1970, and most recently, the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which was established in 1982. These programs evolved over time to keep up with the pace of the air travel industry and have expanded in both scope and size. For example, the AIP has been amended several times, most recently with the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This update greatly increased the financial support for AIP grants and directed funds to be drawn from the Airport and Airway Trust fund, which is supported by user fees, fuel taxes, and other similar revenue sources. (For more details on the history of AIP, go to bit.ly/AIPHistory (PDF download).)
“These grants represent the legacy and vital role of airport infrastructure grant programs in helping the air transportation system operate safely,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in an agency press release. “Investing in our nation’s infrastructure through AIP grants is a cornerstone of our commitment to safety.”
That safety commitment is evident with the wide range of projects and enhancements AIP grants have covered over the years. Some of the more common requests include extending, repositioning, and/or rehabilitating runways, taxiways, and apron areas, installing airport surface lights and signage, and acquiring or upgrading emergency response equipment. However, AIP grants also cover a multitude of projects in some less obvious areas, like airfield drainage, erosion control, planning and environmental studies, airport access and service roads, perimeter fencing, obstruction hazard mitigation, snow removal equipment, and much more. At certain smaller airports, AIP grants may also be used to construct certain revenue-generating facilities like fuel farms or hangars to help airports be more self-sufficient. There are also options for projects that aid the environment, like zero or low-emission vehicles/equipment and charging stations, wildlife hazard assessments, geo-thermal heating and cooling systems, and solar power arrays (provided they meet strict requirements for any solar glare issues).
AIP funds can also be used for certain aircraft noise mitigation measures such as noise monitoring systems, compatibility studies, land acquisition, and noise mitigation testing and controls (e.g., insulation, window treatments) for homes, schools, and other buildings that fall within a certain day-night average sound level, or DNL. You can read more about DNL and the FAA’s latest efforts to address aircraft noise in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of this magazine.
Now that we know a bit more about the types of projects that are eligible for AIP grants, it’s time to look at whether your local airport is eligible to get its less-than-smooth runways repaved or maybe a new LED approach lighting system installed. Let’s break it down.
The FAA works closely with more than 3,300 individual airports, related aviation organizations, and airport agencies to develop these critical airport infrastructure projects. To be AIP eligible, an airport must first be considered public-use, that is, an airport (including a heliport or seaplane base) that is open to the public and meets the following criteria:
- Publicly owned; or
- Privately owned but designated by the FAA as a reliever; or,
- Privately owned but having scheduled service and at least 2,500 annual enplanements.
AIP grant eligibility is also dependent on an airport being included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). The NPIAS, which is prepared and published every two years, identifies public-use airports that are important to public transportation and contribute to the needs of civil aviation, national defense, and the postal service. In addition, an AIP grant recipient must be legally, financially, and otherwise able to carry out the assurances and obligations contained in the project application and grant agreement.
Don’t Take It For Granted
Because the demand for AIP funds exceeds the availability, the FAA bases distribution of these funds on present national priorities and objectives. AIP funds are typically first apportioned into major entitlement categories such as primary, cargo, and general aviation. Remaining funds are allotted to a discretionary fund.
The FAA’s Office of Airports (ARP) is responsible for administering the AIP, including ARP staff in FAA headquarters’ regional offices, and district offices. The headquarters staff ensures that AIP administration follows the statutory requirements and oversees the effective use of AIP funds throughout the United States. The regional and district offices provide technical, financial, planning, environmental, and administrative support to NPIAS airports.
Projects identified to receive AIP funds are carefully scrutinized to ensure that they are eligible and justified for AIP participation based on their ability to enhance safety, improve security, satisfy aeronautical demand, and address environmental concerns. Projects are prioritized and must also meet selection criteria that is established by Congress and further refined in FAA policy.
This criteria also establishes how much of a project cost is covered. For large and medium primary hub airports, the grant covers 75% of eligible costs, while grants for small primary, reliever, and general aviation airports cover a range of 90–95% of eligible costs.
Grants To The Rescue!
To help support a network of more than 3,300 eligible airports, Congress allocates nearly $3.2 billion each year to AIP, along with approximately $1 billion in Supplemental Discretionary funding. Moreover, a series of additional economic relief programs were established to help airports contend with the COVID-19 public health emergency. They include the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, and most recently, the Airports Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). Together, these programs are providing nearly $20 billion in relief funding to airports affected by the pandemic. Also of note is the fact that both CARES and ARPA are providing funds at a 100% federal share, which allows critical safety and capacity projects to continue as planned regardless of an airport sponsors’ current financial circumstances.
When an airport receives federal assistance, the airport sponsor or owner must accept certain obligations and conditions that help ensure the safety and usability of their facilities. Some examples of obligations may include the proper maintenance and operation of airport facilities, the use of airport revenue, and protecting approach areas from development. The FAA encourages airport owners to review each agreement and conveyance document to ensure that they understand their obligations. These obligations help protect the federal government’s investments in local transportation infrastructure and are a major reason why we have such a robust network of airports across the country.
75 Years and Counting
“Airports are powerful engines of economic growth and possibilities for local communities across the United States, and support millions of jobs,” said FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Airports Winsome Lenfert in a recent video message. She added that for the last 75 years, grants have allowed airports across the country to receive funding for forward-looking infrastructure investments and safety projects that have “yielded the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world.” Also important is the ability for these investments to promote environmental sustainability and improve access to diverse communities that depend on airports for transportation as well as receiving goods and services.
We’re paving the way forward to a brighter future, one runway, taxiway, and airfield at a time.
Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.