Seven Things Planners Need to Know About Airports

Planners who aren’t familiar with their local airport can easily overlook the facility. Here is what you should know:

  1. Our aviation system is expansive: At any given time, there are around 7,000 aircraft in the air over the U.S. which are being served by airports of varying sizes and roles. Only 12 percent of the public airports that receive federal funding are primary commercial service airports, meaning that our aviation system is largely composed of facilities mainly used by general aviation aircraft.
Airport Photo 1
Photo Credit, Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.
  1. The airport was probably here first: Many airports in the U.S. have existed since the 20s, 30s or 40s. Over time, many communities have allowed incompatible land uses to encroach into areas around their airport, often resulting in the airport being villainized for operating as it was established to do.
  1. The average citizen contributes very little to the airport: Around 3,300 airports in the US receive federal funding through the FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP). Eligible projects receive from 75% to 95% of project cost from the federal government; the remainder is paid for by the state transportation or aviation department and the locality. Federal AIP funds come from user fees and fuel taxes, not tax dollars from the general public. The same is often true for the state funding match.
  1. Federally-obligated airports must have an approved development plan: Airports who accept AIP funds are obligated to keep their Airport Layout Plan (ALP) up to date. The ALP, a product of the master planning process, depicts the proposed development plan over a 20-year period and beyond. Planners should take into account the 20-year and “Beyond 20 Years” phases of development when making land use decisions. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) applies to projects depicted on the ALP.
  1. Airspace and Safety Basics: There are myriad airspace surfaces and FAA-established design standards; two of the most often cited are the 14 CFR Part 77 “imaginary” surfaces, and the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ). The Part 77 surfaces protect airspace and should be incorporated into the local zoning ordinance to prevent heights and land uses that would interfere with pilot visibility and safety (for example, tall cell towers or reflective solar panels). Remember that the approach path extends well beyond the boundaries of airport property.

The RPZ is a trapezoidal area off of each runway end. For their protection, no people or property can locate within the RPZ. FAA recommends that airports own the land within each RPZ.

FAA Form 7460-1 is required by law for development proposed in proximity to any public-use airport. These should all be tied to the local permit review process to prevent incompatible projects from being approved.

aiport photo 2
Conceptual Drawing of Selected Airspace Surfaces, Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.
  1. A well-equipped airport is an economic development engine: The airport is a utility, and the user wants to come and go as safely and as efficiently as possible.  Generally, lower visibility minimums make an airport more attractive to potential businesses, corporate visitors, and tourists. As the visibility improves, the RPZ on each runway end expands, meaning that the airport must secure more land to ensure pilots have adequate margins of error for takeoff and landing.
  1. Land Use Compatibility is the Responsibility of the Locality:  Zoning is arguably the most powerful tool to protect airspace and prevent land use incompatibility.  Planners should discourage noise sensitive uses like residential from locating near an operating airport. Industrial, manufacturing, and some commercial uses are a better fit. When making land use decisions for your community, take into account the “Beyond 20 Year” phase of development on the ALP.  If the airport plans to extend the runway in Year 21 through a future high-density residential area, compatibility issues are sure to follow.

About the Author:  Mary Ashburn Pearson, AICP, is an airport planner and environmental Project Manager at Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.  She lives in Richmond, Virginia.