A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2008

Airport User Fees

       “Those guys from the newspaper come in here every day looking for an announcement. They’re expecting I’ll tell them soon about throwing my hat in the ring for the mayor’s chair. I’m the logical choice to run the show here.   After all, it was me that got the MLA elected, and  I’ve been in this town for 30 years, so I know what’s going on.”

      The barber rambled on and on about his accomplishments, mostly in politics, as I sat there a prisoner in his chair one afternoon in July.   The rain was falling in this northern British Columbia town where I was based while flying on a seasonal forestry job.   The conversation was one-sided, and as time passed, I began to wonder how much hair would remain on my head by the time another customer came in to save me from this guy.

          He could talk up a storm, mostly about his thoughts and ideas of how the town should be, the world should turn, how bad the kids are today, the economy, fuel prices, the weather, and how much better it would all be if he became the mayor in the next election.   Yup, he would make the perfect politician.   I thought “with talk like that, everyone would vote for him, except perhaps the other barber in the shop, who heard it all before on a daily basis.”

         At one point, there was enough of a break in his blabbering that I was able to squeeze in a question about the user fees his town had slapped on at their airport.   It happens to be one of the towns that inherited the facility from Transport Canada several years ago.   Faced with the cost of upkeep, their natural reaction was to start collecting more money from the businesses and aircraft owners, as well as implementing landing and parking fees for itinerant pilots.   He immediately jumped to the defense of the council, re-stating the short-sighted reasoning they all use about how the rich people with airplanes should pay for it all.   There was no listening to the indirect benefits brought to a city by aviation.   The obvious extra traffic in hotels, restaurants, even in his barber shop simply didn’t compute in his mind with people using the airport.   If it were not for the strategic location of the town, I suggested even the government, forestry and mining flight operations would seek out a base offering lower costs.

          The local municipal government in that town as well as many others, will sometimes hear none of the reasoning or the facts uncovered through economic impact studies that have already been done.     It is quite simply a matter of paying directly for the use of that runway and parking area by the pilot who uses it.   The comparison of a direct charge for the city street that a motorist drives on just doesn’t occur to these people.  

          The company that employed me to fly was charged a fee close to $14 each time I landed at that airport.   There was also an $8.00 fee to park on their ramp overnight.   We used the airport for the better part of three months. Do the math and see why a company flying even a small plane like a Cessna 182 would choose to utilize another location if it were available.   Meanwhile, I was living at a motel and eating at restaurants in the town.   With the taxi to and from the airport, the daily cost not including the landing/parking fees, totaled $154.  Consider the people employed in just those services.   The motel and restaurant staff and the taxi driver are all tax-paying residents of the town.  

           Obviously, the money from our company didn’t totally support the entire industry of that town, but there was a forest fire operations base there, along with a couple of helicopter providers, an air freight/courier, and two charter/schedule airlines.   The fuel dealer was also paying several cents to the municipality from every liter he sold.   A rough estimate of the people involved in the work from that airport would be one hundred.   If each employee shoveled out the basics of $150 daily as I was, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the economic benefit of that airport to the town.   This is all very unscientific of course.   But impact studies have been done for many municipally-owned airports around the country which show results that an open-minded person, even a politician could not brush aside.   It’s a matter of listening to the facts before making up their minds.

           The barber who wants to become the mayor was too busy talking to be listening to anything.   His little town’s airport is doing well only because of the strategic location it enjoys.   However, there is already evidence of pilots and companies avoiding it as much as possible.   They find other places to purchase fuel, make do with slightly longer flights, and change with the times to keep operating expenses down.   For almost the entire summer, my 182 sat alone on that huge ramp.   But what hurt most about my encounter with the barber was the next morning when the fuel dealer asked me, “Where’d you get that HAIRCUT?!”

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