Blue Ash Airport faces shutdown this year
By Steve Kemme
Mark Day, of Liberty Township, owner of Blue Ash Aircraft Services, works on a plane at the Blue Ash Airport last week. “It’s very frustrating,” Day says. “I’m the littlest guy out here. I am not like a car mechanic and can just go anywhere.”
Small planes at Blue Ash Airport
The Cincinnati-owned Blue Ash Airport, established when this large suburban community was farmland, likely will be closed later his year.
The 91-year-old general aviation airport, which serves mostly small recreational aircraft, is a victim of economics and of its own limitations.
Cincinnati officials have made it clear they would rather invest in the much larger and more successful city-owned Lunken Airport in the East End than in the Blue Ash Airport, which has suffered in recent decades from declining use and sub-par facilities.
When Cincinnati sold 130 acres of airport property to Blue Ash for $37.5 million in 2007, it planned to move airport operations to the 100-acre section it retained and continue running the airport. The $37.5 million is to be paid over 30 years.
But Cincinnati’s failure to secure a $3.1 million grant from the Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) has all but officially doomed the airport.
Cincinnati must turn over the property to Blue Ash by Aug. 31, according to the sale contract. The runway sits on property Cincinnati will keep.
The buildings housing the airport’s three fixed-base operators are on the portion Blue Ash plans to turn into a park with a pavilion, playgrounds, bike and hike trails and many other amenities. Those buildings must be removed from that property before Blue Ash can begin work on its park.
Bill Dunn, vice president of airport advocacy with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md., has been fighting to keep the airport open. He said that as recently as a year ago, Cincinnati officials assured him it would stay open.
The FAA has balked at giving Cincinnati funding to reconfigure the airport because the city wants to earmark money from its sale of the airport land for non-airport-related uses, possibly including the streetcar project.
In a Dec. 13, 2010, letter to Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, an FAA official warned that federal regulations require the city to use proceeds from the sale of airport land for aeronautical-related uses. Cincinnati officials were unaware of those regulations three years earlier when they sold the airport land to Blue Ash.
Cincinnati and the FAA are “in discussions” about restrictions on the money Cincinnati is receiving in approximately $1 million annual payments from Blue Ash for the airport land, according to Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for the city manager’s office and Tony Molinaro, spokesman for the FAA’s Great Lakes region.
Fred Anderton, manager of Blue Ash Airport and Lunken Airport in the East End, said that even if the Federal Aviation Administration would approve Cincinnati’s $3.1 million grant request, there isn’t time to reconfigure the airport by the end of August.
“Construction at airports has a whole series of requirements, including an environmental study and evaluation,” he said. “I have construction projects at Lunken that have been in the FAA’s process for a year.”
Cincinnati officials will decide whether to close the airport after Anderton completes a report about the airport’s operating costs and economic resources, Olberding said.
The prospects for a positive report don’t look good.
“At best, the airport was a break-even proposition,” Anderton said. “Given the economic downturn that has affected just about every airport in the country, at this point, it’s less than break-even.”
Airport used only half as much as in 1995
The use of Blue Ash Airport has been declining in recent years. There were 15,000 landings and take-offs last year, a precipitous drop from 35,000 landings and take-offs in 1995.
So few Blue Ash businesses use the airport that city officials aren’t concerned about losing businesses if the airport closes, said Kelly Osler, the city’s assistant to the city manager.
“There are other airports in the area that can support the businesses that do use the Blue Ash Airport,” she said.
Those who use and work at the airport are upset that it may close. They said they feel betrayed by Cincinnati and Blue Ash.
Cincinnati, which has owned the airport since 1946, has done little in the past 20 years to enhance the airport, which began as an airfield in 1921, said Amy Christian, who along with her husband, Bill, owns Blue Ash Aviation, one of the airport’s three fixed-base operators.
“The only reason we bought this business in 2003 is that we thought that Blue Ash would buy the airport and keep it open,” she said. “It’s just a real shame. The airport’s a regional asset.”
The airport is located at the corner of Glendale-Milford Road and the Reed Hartman Highway near commercial and office complexes, 20 minutes from downtown Cincinnati and close to three interstate highways and the Ronald Reagan Highway.
“It just angers me that Cincinnati officials are so short-sighted,” said Don Theiss, who works at Co-op AirCraft Service, a business at the airport providing flight training and scenic flights.
Cincinnati Councilman Christopher Smitherman has suggested that Cincinnati sell its remaining 100 acres of airport land to Blue Ash. He said Blue Ash should have the right to determine whether the airport remains open or closed. He has talked to Blue Ash Mayor Mark Weber about this proposal.
“We should work with them on a fair price for the 100 acres,” Smitherman said. “I think it’s going to be a black eye for Cincinnati if we’re involved in any way in closing their airport.”
Blue Ash Mayor Mark Weber said he appreciates Smitherman’s proposal, but Blue Ash hasn’t budgeted the money to buy the 100 acres.
“It boils down to money,” Weber said. “I’m not sure if we paid $15 million or $20 million for the property that we could even justify operating that airport from an economic perspective.”
Weber said he would love to see the airport remain open. But it would have to undergo significant improvements to make it financially feasible for Blue Ash to operate it, he said.
“Our foremost priority is to begin working on our park,” Weber said. “If the airport were a lean, efficient, business-oriented facility, it would be a very valuable asset to Blue Ash and the surrounding communities.”
Many of the pilots and businesses who use the Blue Ash Airport could fly out of Lunken, which is 13 miles away.
Other general aviation airports in the area are Butler County Regional Airport in Hamilton, the Warren County Airport near Lebanon, Clermont County Airport near Batavia and the Middletown Regional Airport.
Scott Meyer, of Mainville in Deerfield Township, frequently rents planes at the Blue Ash Airport to fly on pleasure trips.
“My wife and I have flown from Blue Ash on dozens and dozens of places on family trips,” he said. “It’s convenient. It’s fifteen minutes from my house.”
If the airport closes, he said, he would fly out of Lunken or Warren County.
Bob Tanis, of West Chester Township, has three aircraft at Blue Ash that he rents for charter flights. Tanis, 72, also flies for pleasure about once a week. He said if the Blue Ash Airport closes, he might move his planes to the Warren County Airport.
“From the standpoint of doing business,” he said, “Blue Ash is at a strategic location. It would be a total disservice to the public if it were closed.”
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