Nebraska Lawmaker secures relief for rural airports


April 21st, 2016

Passengers disembark a Great Lakes plane at North Platte Regional Airport (Image courtesy of North Platte Regional Airport)

Passengers disembark a Great Lakes plane at North Platte Regional Airport (Image courtesy of North Platte Regional Airport)

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. The bill included a provision by Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith to help rural airports.

Congress re-authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t all that newsworthy; it’s fairly frequent by Washington standards.

What is important is a measure co-written by Representative Adrian Smith, from Nebraska’s rural third district.

Up until 2012, if airports had at least 10,000 passengers flying out, called enplanements, the airport was classified as a primary airport.

Mike Sharkey is the airport manager at North Platte Regional Airport. He said if airports don’t hit 10,000 enplanements, they lose out on a million dollars a year in federal.

Sharkey said thanks to Congressman Smith’s Small Airport Regulation Relief Act, small airports will be allowed to continue using enplanement numbers from 2012, before new federal restrictions on pilots went into effect and rural enplanements began dropping significantly.

Sharkey says the $1 million a year in federal funding is vital to maintaining a small airport’s infrastructure.

“Anything from runway repair and extension, taxiways, aprons, firefighting equipment, snow removal equipment, it’s all kind of prioritized on what you can have first,” Sharkey said. “It means a lot to us. Without it, we would have a difficult time trying to maintain our infrastructure in a safe manner.”

 While he’s happy his airport will get some help, Sharkey said Congress didn’t deal with the real issue of why enplanements at rural airports went down in the first place. Sharkey said when Congress raised the minimum flight time for co-pilots from 250 hours to 1500 hours, they created a pilot shortage.

“As such, for the smaller airlines where the pilots come in at an entry level, [pilots are ] scarce as a hen’s teeth these days. And when they do come in, they immediately go up the food chain to the sexier airplanes, or the better salaries. It’s a hell of a problem and it’s not going to change. It’s going to get worse unless Congress does something to rectify—and I’m going to say rectify their mistake, because to me it is.”

Some groups, like the Air Line Pilots Association, maintain the only reason a pilot shortage exists, is because smaller airlines refuse to pay pilots a fair wage.

Whatever the reason for the drop in enplanements at rural airports, the passage of Small Airport Regulation Relief Act has been applauded by lawmakers and airport directors from across Nebraska.

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