Across the globe, airport management and ownership varies greatly. Even within the United States, the type of ownership varies, with the exception that almost all commercial service airports are owned by a government entity, aka an airport sponsor. As detailed in Origins of Aviation, the way that civil aviation was created in the United States helped to lay the foundation that continues to this day. The assurances required by the military when much of the civil aviation system was being created required a governmental entity to qualify.
In the United States alone, over 19,000 airports exist to keep the nation flying. While the vast majority are privately owned, there is a good chance that most airports you know are not owned by a person or company. Out of the more than 19,000 airports, over 5,100 are open for public use, leaving roughly 14,000 airports to private use and ownership. A small number of those 5,1000 are privately owned, just 78.
Not the type of sponsors you’re thinking. The Airport Sponsor is the FAA’s way of classifying the government entity that is responsible for an airport. Airport Sponsors vary from airport to airport with some being municipal, county, or states and others perhaps port authorities, airport authorities, or very rarely private companies. The Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982 defines an Airport Sponsor as any public agency or private owner of a public-use airport.
The FAA doesn’t mandate a specific structure or ownership model. US airports currently fall under the following six types of ownership models:
- City/Municipal – 33%
- Airport Authority – 30%
- County – 15%
- Port Authority – 9%
- State 7%
- Others – 6%
The management structure of each airport varies on the government entity that created it.
As the majority of airports are owned by a municipality, there is a chance that a number of airports that you’ve heard of are owned and operated by the municipality it is located in. City owned airports range in size from small airports such as McKinney National Airport in McKinney, TX (TKI) to the world’s largest airport Atlanta International Airport (ATL). The city may run the airport as a division of the basic form of government or under a separate department entirely.
Similar to city airports, County airports are also municipal and combined with the city owned airports account for 48% of all US airports. County owned airports also range in size with airports such as Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC) formerly Jefferson County Airport in Jefferson County, Colorado or a City/County venture such as Denver International Airport (DEN). Counties have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of city airports.
Some municipalities want to retain ownership of the airport while allowing a streamlined operation. By creating an Airport Advisory Board, the municipality can elect to retain control, while allowing specialized professionals to run the airport. Depending on how the advisory board is created determines the authority that it has.
Advantages of Municipal Airports
One of the main advantages of an municipal airport structure involves the access to other municipal resources. City and County owned airports can have public works, IT, police, fire/ems, and other services provided by the larger municipal government. As a municipality, the power to levy taxes is as the core of the existence. One note, airport revenue cannot be used for municipal needs without risking Revenue Diversion. It should be noted that airports can receive tax revenue from a municipality if required.
Disadvantages of Municipal Airports
The biggest disadvantage of a municipality owning an airport lies in the experience levels of the decision makers. Often times, the decision makers could be mayors, city council members, and department heads, who are unfamiliar with FAA regulations, laws, and aviation related operations. There is also a level of distraction when all parties are not working towards the same goal. Having to govern an entire municipality results in less attention on the airport.
Airport and Port Authorities
Some local governments have decided to create special-purpose district or political subdivision of the state or county to oversee specifically airports or in some cases a larger port system that includes an airport as well. Airport Authorities can be made up of several entities or one. For example, Louisville Muhammad Ali International (SDF) is owned and operated by the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, which is a political subdivision of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Another example is Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) which is an airport authority that is created in partnership with the City of Dallas and City of Forth Worth.
Other entities have broader objectives to include entire ports. Examples of those could be created by a state legislature like the Port of Portland which owns and operates Portland International Airport (PDX) and Port of Seattle which oversees Seattle International Airport (SEA). The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a bi-state initiative that owns and operates six airports in the New York City Metro area, including Kennedy International (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA), and Newark (EWR).
Advantages of Authorities
Many of the advantages of authorities are related to the disadvantages of a municipal airport. Having specialized leadership that focuses on the objectives of aviation rather than a general city or county can be beneficial. As less distractions arise, the leadership and governing authority can strategically plan based on the best needs of the airport. In addition, airports rarely only effect the municipality it is located in. This allows the authority board or commission to look at a larger regional view for growth and development of the civil aviation system.
Distractions can also come financially. When cities or counties face budget cuts, the airport may be subject to the same cuts, even though it can be a revenue generator. Having the resources needed for the airport to function is important.
Disadvantages of Authorities
Authorities are not a free for all. The resources that a municipality can provide are often a huge benefit to the municipal airport. By streamlining support functions, such as human resources, police and fire, and even public works functions, there is no duplication of services. The airport may be on the hook for reimbursing the city for the services, but they do not have to carry the full burden. Authorities typically do not have the ability to levy taxes either.
State Airport Systems
Few states run their airport systems at the state level, but it does happen. The Hawaii Department of Transportation runs the airports within Hawaii, including Honolulu International Airport (HNL). Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and all public airports in Alaska are owned and operated by the Department of Transportation. Other states include Maryland’s Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. State airport systems have similar advantages and disadvantages as municipal airports.
As of this writing, only one commercial airport in the United States is privatized. Branson Airport (BBG) in Branson, MO is technically a private airport. The airport is owned by Taney County, MO, leased to the Branson Regional Airport Transportation Development District, and operated by Branson Airport, LLC.