Federal legislation filed Wednesday (Feb. 24) seeks to maintain federal grants for the Fort Smith Regional Airport. But the legislation was a surprise to Airport Director John Parker, and he is unsure if it will help resolve a more than two-year effort to negotiate a lease deal between the airport and the U.S. National Guard.
The bill, filed by U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is geared to help airports and Air National Guard units that lost a manned mission in recent years remain eligible for Federal Aviation Administration grants. When units in Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee lost their manned missions they were no longer “aeronautical in nature,” and the associated civilian airports were “ineligible for certain FAA grants,” noted a statement from Cotton’s office.
In 2013 the 188th Fighter Wing at Fort Smith, a unit of the Arkansas Air National Guard, began the transition from from an A-10 Fighter Wing to an MQ-9 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Targeting Wing.
“The 188th Fighter Wing at Fort Smith is critical to Arkansas and America’s safety and security, and supporting their efforts should be a top priority,” Cotton said in the statement. “Unfortunately, changes to their mission have compromised the long-standing relationship between the Arkansas National Guard and the Fort Smith airport. This legislation is a win for Arkansas across the board. It would protect the 188th Fighter Wing’s future missions and ensure the Fort Smith airport is eligible to receive critical FAA grants to support its operations.”
Parker, who has managed the Fort Smith airport through the 188th transition, said the FAA allowed the Fort Smith Regional Airport Commission to lease 141 acres of airport property to the 188th for $1 a year when it had a manned mission. In turn, the 188th provided services to the airport – like aircraft rescue and firefighting services – and also reimbursed the airport for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades.
The bottom line is the Fort Smith airport will be “out of compliance” with FAA guidelines by October 2016 if it does not negotiate lease terms with the Air Guard on the land now being used by a non-aeronautical military unit. Such noncompliance could cost the airport access to future FAA grants. But trying to negotiate a value for the 141 acres with with the Air Guard in Washington D.C. has “been an adventure,” Parker said. He said he has “stacks” of documents that show how difficult discussions have been with the Air Guard.
“The airport commission is an enterprise fund. We have to earn the money we spend. Well, it’s difficult to do that when you have the largest land occupier of our airport essentially saying … we don’t have any intentions of paying for the land we are occupying,” Parker said.
Parker also stressed that the problem is federal and not state or local military leaders.
“This has nothing to do with the 188th. This has nothing to do with the Arkansas National Guard. They’ve been great. … The lease was signed by the United States Air Force,” Parker said.
The biggest issue has been providing fire services. The airport spends about $400,000 a year, which was a big hit on an airport with a $2.6 million budget.
“We’re not the only airport that has been affected by this, but we just happen to be the most adversely affected by this change,” Parker said, noting that the other airports have much larger budgets and resources to absorb expenses related to losing a manned military mission.
Two of the 188th fire trucks were made available – through a convoluted deal that included the U.S. Forest Service – to the airport. Also, the FAA has helped the airport acquire a new fire truck that will be delivered in May and is helping fund construction of a $2.6 million fire station in the 2017 fiscal year.
“The one governmental agency that has bent over backwards and has come to the aid of the airport, has been the FAA. They have gone way above and beyond to try to resolve some of the negative issues that have come to us because of the decision to remove the flying mission,” Parker said.
Prefacing that he was not made aware of the legislation or had a chance to read it, Parker said he hopes the bill does not inhibit the airport’s ability to negotiate a lease with the Air Guard. He said the only real leverage the airport has with the Air Guard is the FAA non-compliance rule. (The statement from Cotton did not include a bill number, and no filing of such a bill appeared on Congress.gov.)
When asked about Parker’s negotiation leverage concern, Cotton’s office responded: “Senator Cotton is focused on maintaining the relationship between the guard and the airport in a way that protects the interests of both parties.”
A joint use agreement allowing other military aircraft to use the field also has expired and military officials are moving slow on a new agreement, Parker said. Without the agreement, military planes now use the airport but don’t pay to help maintain the infrastructure. All other users – general aviation, commercial travelers, airplane rentals, etc. – pay something to use the facility, Parker said.