Report Probes Spending On General Aviation

Over the past 28 years, Congress has allocated $15 billion to building and maintaining airports that cater to small, private planes. Some of the money comes from fees on commercial airline tickets. USA Today staff writer Thomas Frank, who investigated the spending, talks with Melissa Block about his findings.

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[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Our report referred to some small airports that cater to recreational planes and corporate jets as "private" airports. That is an inaccurate characterization. "Private" airports are just that: airports that belong to private individuals or companies that restrict traffic. The airports being referred to in our report are open to public use.]

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you've bought a plane ticket recently, you're probably at least somewhat aware of the taxes and fees you pay. They can add up to 15 percent to the ticket price. Turns out, some of that money is going toward building and maintaining airports that most of us will never use.

Over the past three decades, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to small airports that cater to recreational planes and corporate jets, $1.2 billion this year alone and a large chunk of that has come from those ticket taxes and fees. Those are the findings of a USA Today investigation by reporter Thomas Frank, who joins us here in our studios. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. THOMAS FRANK (Staff Writer, USA Today): Good to be here.

BLOCK: Give us an example of one of the airports that you talk about in your report today that is not a commercial airport and is barely used, getting a lot of money.

Mr. FRANK: Well, the example I used in the lead of the story is an airport in Williamsburg, Kentucky, which is about two hours south of Lexington. It's not in a very populated area. It was built during the 1990s and it has gotten about $11 million from the federal government, which accounts for about 95 percent - 90, 95 percent of the construction costs. That airport, on the average day, has two or three planes arriving. Some days it has none.

BLOCK: And who is flying in? Who are these people?

Mr. FRANK: They are private pilots, mostly people who own small piston engine planes, Cessnas, those sort of things that are usually considered personal or recreational use.

BLOCK: And how did this start? Why so much money going to these small airports?

Mr. FRANK: It goes back actually to the years after World War II, when there were literally thousands of surplus airports that had been built and maintained as part of civil defense. There was no need for them. And so, Congress started allocating money after - in the years after World War II to convert them into civilian use. And there have been various programs over the years.

The one I wrote about is the most recent one that began in 1982. And it's by far the most generous in terms of the raw dollars that it gives and the percentage of each project that it covers for these private-use airports. Right now, it pays for 95 percent of a capital project. Previous programs paid for much lesser sums.

BLOCK: And as you point out in your article, often it's members of Congress themselves who are using these airports.

Mr. FRANK: It's - a lot of members of Congress, they have these large sprawling districts or they're from states that it's a very easy way for them to get around. And sometimes they can be taken on corporate jets, which is a real lobbying opportunity for the owners of the jets.

BLOCK: Well, what's the defense when members of Congress are asked about this, why we should be funding these private airports, what do they say?

Mr. FRANK: The main defense is they're an economic development tool. A lot of businesses, they will say, want aviation access. It can bring in vital services such as air medical transport or deliveries. And the sort of overarching idea is that the United States has a national transportation network - air transportation network and everyone in the country should have reasonable access to that. No one should be so isolated that they can't get on an airplane.

BLOCK: That's the argument from Congress, but who's upset about this? Who doesn't think this money should be going to these noncommercial airports?

Mr. FRANK: The airlines. And the airlines think that because their customers, their travelers are paying taxes, paying extra money which, of course, raises the cost of air travel, which the airlines don't want. And the money that the air travelers are paying is going to facilities that the air travelers don't use. So, the Air Transport Association ,which is the main trade group lobbying organization of the U.S. airline industry, has been the most vocal critic of that.

BLOCK: And the planes and pilots that actually are using these private airports, are they also subsidizing their use, their development?

Mr. FRANK: Slightly. They pay a tax on gas, just like the gas tax you pay when you fill your car up at the pump. The amount of money that is paid through the tax on aviation gas is infinitesimal, much smaller than what the airline passenger are paying through the taxes on their tickets.

BLOCK: Thomas Frank is a staff writer with USA Today. Thomas, thanks very much.

Mr. FRANK: Thanks for having me.

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Correction Sept. 18, 2009

Our report referred to some small airports that cater to recreational planes and corporate jets as "private" airports. That is an inaccurate characterization. Private airports are just that: airports that belong to private individuals or companies that restrict traffic. The airports being referred to in our report are open to public use.

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