Try for smoother landing

Can costly defense of Creswell airport be avoided?


Appeared in print: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, page G2
The mission of the Federal Aviation Administration is to “provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” That mission is poorly served by allowing Creswell’s municipal airport to become an expensive headache for the city. If Creswell and the operator of a skydiving service at Hobby Field can’t reach an agreement, the FAA should help map an accommodation that doesn’t unfairly burden the city’s taxpayers.
Hobby Field is a busy civil aviation airport, favored by many who fly for business or pleasure. It’s closer to many parts of Eugene than Eugene’s own airport. The Creswell field has been especially popular with skydivers — but in 2006 the city banned parachutists from landing at the airport, citing safety concerns.

The ban put one skydiving service out of business. Another, Eugene Skydivers, has managed to hold on by allowing its clients to land on county-owned property nine miles from the airport. Eugene Skydivers’ owner filed a complaint with the FAA, saying the city’s ban violated a federal requirement that the airport make its facilities available for all reasonable purposes, without discriminating among any of them.
On Tuesday the City Council approved spending $100,000 to defend against the complaint. The money will be drawn from the city’s general fund, and it comes on top of $377,000 in municipal subsidies for the airport since 2000. Those figures should cause people in Creswell, most of whom never use the airport, to raise two objections: First, resolving an FAA complaint shouldn’t cost anywhere near $100,000. And second, the airport needs to come closer to paying its own way.

The FAA ought to be able to help with the first concern. The agency is at least partly accountable for the fact that skydiving has become such a long-running dispute in Creswell, having initially found that Hobby Field was unsafe for skydiving and then reversing itself. The city is currently relying for guidance on a consultant whose opinion is in line with the FAA’s initial conclusion.
It shouldn’t cost $100,000 to find out from the FAA once and for all whether parachutists can safely use the airport, and if they can, what conditions need to be imposed upon skydiving operations. Such questions are routine for the FAA, which regulates nearly 15,000 airports around the country and must constantly referee conflicts between civil and commercial aircraft, hot air balloons, ultralight contraptions, helicopters and other flying machines, as well as skydivers.

Reports that the skydiving dispute and continuing deficits have led Creswell to consider simply closing its airport should induce the FAA to step in, answer questions about skydiving and provide mediation if necessary. Closure may not be a real option — a shutdown could violate the terms of airport grants the city has received in the past — but evidence that the airport has become more of a burden than an asset should signal to the FAA that its assistance is needed.

The second concern, recurring deficits at the airport, is for the city to solve. While the airport provides some commercial benefit for the city, it ought to come close to being a break-even operation. That may mean higher user fees for flyers and other users, including skydivers. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, people who use the airport seemed willing to pay more if that’s what it takes to keep the airport open.
Perhaps the threat of closure was the alarm bell those with a stake in the airport needed, including the FAA and users of all kinds. The airport should not be so heavy a burden for the city of Creswell.

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