U.S. AIr Force Secretary Deborah James has asked Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta for relief from a technicality that might cause the Fort Smith Regional Airport to not be eligible for critical FAA grant funding support.
At issue is the fair market value (FMV) of land used by the 188th Wing at the Fort Smith Regional AIrport and the change in mission from a manned fighter wing to an intelligence unit centered around remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The FAA has set a deadline of October 2016 for a new lease – known as an Airport Joint Use Agreement – between the Air National Guard and the Fort Smith airport.
Airport Director John Parker has been frustrated that the Air Guard is not moving faster on a lease agreement. Efforts on an agreement began in October 2015, and the Air Guard has shown “very little movement” on the issue, Parker has said.
The original lease agreement between the two parties allowed the Air Guard to utilize 141 acres of airfield. The FAA allowed the airport to lease the land for $1 a year to the 188th. In turn, the 188th provided services to the facility – like aircraft rescue and firefighting assistance – and also reimbursed it for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades. This arrangement resulted in a “cost avoidance” to the Fort Smith airport of $400,000 a year, which was significant especially in light of the facility’s small-by-comparison $2.6 million operating budget.
It’s that fire and rescue service that has been a financial burden on the airport. Parker noted in a recent interview with Talk Business & Politics that the airport budget is operating with a $360,000 loss each year now that the arrangement is no longer in place.
While the AJUA would not solve the issue created when the airport lost the 188th manned mission as a tenant, it would cut into its annual deficit spending woes. To meet the “aeronautical” terms of the AJUA, Fort Smith Regional would have to show government operations on the airfield qualify as “significant use,” which could mean having five based aircraft onsite, 300 operations per month, or 5 million pounds of landing weight by government aircraft.
In her letter dated April 15, James noted that U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Reps. French Hill, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, had brought the issue to her attention. She wrote that the FAA should consider the 188th mission as still “aeronautical.”
“The transition to unmanned aircraft is a slow and deliberate process. It is contingent on, among other things, the world situation and sufficient FAA guidelines to operate military RPAs in the national airspace. Our staffs are working together to ensure the ‘aeronautical’ definition and the FMV requirement do not overly burden the civil airport or the ANG by requiring immediate renegotiation of lease agreements. We believe these ANG missions are inherently ‘aeronautical,’” James wrote.
James hand wrote this message at the bottom of the letter: “Please help! This is really important to us. See you soon.”
Part of the impetus for a solution came from the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Tim Allen said a recent trip by chamber members to Washington, D.C., included meetings on the subject.
“The Fort Smith Chamber has been working diligently to keep all of the parties in partnership working towards the long-term solution. The Chamber’s 57th Annual Washington Fly-In devoted a bulk of the agenda to discussing the issue with key military leaders and congressional staff and today we are seeing progress for those efforts,” Allen noted.
Allen admitted that convincing the FAA to maintain the airport’s “aeronautical” status with respect to 188th operations does not solve all of the airport’s financial issues.
“While this does not completely alleviate the issue created when the airport lost the 188th manned mission as a tenant, it could possibly lessen the annual deficit spending,” Allen said.
Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based First National Bank and chairman of the Fort Smith chamber board of directors, said in a chamber statement that it is important for all parties to work together on a solution.
“Fort Smith and the entire area need a strong regional airport,” Sicard noted in the statement. “Having this conditional compliance in place with the FAA would keep the airport and 188th in sync and position both organizations to realize gains.”
Talk Business & Politics was unable on Monday to reach Parker for comment. However, he recently said he was open to solutions.
“Currently that request is in, and they are working that issue at the National Guard bureau. There is movement and contact and communications to make this happen,” Parker said. “If you show us a different path, we’ll proceed down it to try and mitigate the deficit spending this has put us in.”