Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Open forum: Taxpayers footing the bill for wealthy airplane owners

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The Aug. 22 article, ‘‘Airpark has been running a deficit for two years,” was brilliant for exposing how the county airpark is losing money and costing taxpayers a half million dollars per year.

However, the article misleads us to erroneously believe that the half million-dollar taxpayer subsidy is a temporary shortfall as a result of the decrease in the number of flights since Sept. 11, 2001. On the contrary, the deficit has nothing to do with the volume of flights. It is structural and permanent.

Financial statements for years other than the two sampled for the article will show that the airpark’s deficit precedes 2001, and is permanent. Why? Because use of the airpark has been and continues to be a courtesy the taxpayers provide for free to owners of private planes without remuneration.

The county’s only source of revenue from the airpark is rent it collects from a few businesses that operate there and lease office and warehouse space. Other airports charge landing fees. But it is the Revenue Authority’s policy for the taxpayers to fund the use of the airpark for the benefit of wealthy corporate jet owners and private plane hobbyists and enthusiasts.

Also, operating the airpark at a loss puts the county in violation of its legal obligations to the Federal Aviation Administration under the FAA’s recent $30 million grant for runway improvements.

Under the Airport Assurances conceded to the FAA, No. 24 on page 10 states, the Revenue Authority ‘‘will maintain a fee and rental structure for the facilities and services at the airport which will make the airport as self-sustaining as possible.” Costing the taxpayers a half million dollars per year does not meet any respectable definition of self-sustaining.

Other airports in the state that our airpark is attempting to attract traffic from charge landing fees to fund their operations. If the airpark were so indispensable to private and corporate flight beneficiaries, then surely these users would not object to paying for this value they receive, instead of expecting the taxpayers to pick up the bill.

If a private pilot would rather fly out of the airpark than drive the hour it would take to fly out of Frederick Airport, then surely he would be willing to pay for this convenience, and not expect taxpayers to fund his personal hobby. If a wealthy corporate CEO wants to fly into the airpark instead of Dulles, BWI or Frederick airports, then why are Montgomery County taxpayers footing the bill for his convenience?

If the airpark were to adopt the typical landing fee used by other airports of this size and charge even a minimal $2 per thousand pounds of landing weight, it could easily break even without burdening users. For example, a single engine prop plane, depending on its size, would pay $2 to $4 for landing at our airpark. Small corporate jets would pay $20. Larger corporate jets would pay $40. A 60,000-pound intercontinental Gulfstream G4 that costs about $10,000 per hour to operate would pay $120 to land at Gaithersburg. Such a minimal fee could be adjusted as necessary to produce at least a break-even from the airpark’s 100,000 flight operations per year, and would still be substantially less than fees charged by municipalities owning nearby competitor airports.

It’s time for the Revenue Authority to stop giving wealthy plane owners a free ride at taxpayer expense, and to honor their contractual obligations to the FAA by implementing landing fees.

Brian Benhaim, Montgomery Village