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Tiny airports rake in big cash after botched stimulus formula

The divergent outcomes for airports reveal how important obscure legislative language can be when it comes to the unprecedented economic stimulus packages Congress has passed. Across the multitrillion dollar federal rescue effort, there’s been a series of fits and starts, with some enterprises getting money quickly, while others suffer — often without knowing why.

The story behind the $10 billion in airport funding effort is simple: Airports with little or no debt and a decent amount of cash on hand were entitled to receive a relatively large share of the money. But that inherently benefited small airports because they don’t have the huge amounts of debt associated with capital projects at larger airports.

For the nearly 200 commercial airports that received only enough money to pay the bills for a few months, the federal bailout means uncertainty about their futures and tough decisions to make about services or projects to cut back on once the federal money runs out. That could make recovery even more complicated for communities that rely on airports to boost tourism or provide essential services, not to mention travelers, private pilots and others who hope to return to using them when air travel picks up again.

“It’s highly skewed towards small airports with zero debt and something like one dollar in the reserves,” said Mark Sixel, a consultant who counts a dozen airports as clients and who prepared an analysis for them. “It stands out like a sore thumb.”

That means airports like Merrill Field, a small airport in Alaska that largely serves small planes, would receive nearly $18 million, worth about nine years of its expenses. Its manager told the Anchorage Daily News that it was the “most money invested in Merrill Field in the past five years, if not ever.”

And John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport — no stranger to federal largess, considering the late lawmaker who is the airport’s namesake was known for bringing home pork — was set to receive over $5 million. It averaged about a dozen daily passenger boardings in 2018.

In all, nearly 3,300 airports are getting a piece of the $10 billion allocated in the CARES Act. The individual grant amounts range from $1,000 to $338,535,265 and can be used for capital costs, operations or debt payments.

In the hasty process of developing the bill, House Democrats had a simpler proposal that relied almost exclusively on the number of passengers flying through an airport. That would have benefited airports roughly proportionally to how busy they are.

“We pushed back against [the plans to take debt into account], but the process happened so quickly,” a Democratic aide said.

A Senate Appropriations spokesperson noted that the plans for distributing funds were developed in consultation with the FAA and ultimately with the sign-off of Democratic and Republican appropriators in both chambers. The spokesperson argued that the language Congress crafted gave the agency flexibility.

“The fact that FAA has been able to make necessary adjustments without new language shows sufficient flexibility was provided to begin with,” the spokesperson said.

But at least one lawmaker has publicly decried how FAA is handing out the money. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), whose district includes Memphis International Airport, asked the FAA to suspend the grant payments until Congress has a chance to fix them. He pointed out that Memphis International, the second-busiest cargo airport in the world, got less than the nearby McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, which had half as many passengers travel through it compared with Memphis in 2019.

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