The Federal Aviation Administration has spoken, but it wasn't the answer Huron and Erie county commissioners wanted to hear. No waiver was granted to allow federal funding for a new airport with a 9,000-foot runway to serve NASA Plum Brook and the area.
Matthew J. Thys, manager of the FAA district office in Detroit, gave the commissioners a concise answer "The answer is a firm no."
Erie County officials are already looking at taking their argument to the next level, but FAA officials said Monday at a commissioners meeting that Huron County commissioners also attended that the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport Authority is the board that would be granted any funding. That board already runs an airport in Ottawa County and both that airport and the Huron County airport are too close to the proposed airport on NASA Plum Brook property for a new airport to be eligible for federal funding.
FAA regulations have four criteria for allowing new airports into the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). Sandusky meets three of the criteria, but flunks out on the fourth a rule that no federal funds will be spent on airports within 20 nautical miles, approximately a 30-minute drive, from another with NPIAS certification.
Both the Huron County airport and the Erie-Ottawa regional airport in Ottawa County are within 20 nautical miles of the suggested site of a new airport on property owned by NASA Plum Brook.
By nautical miles a direct line from Plum Brook to the existing airports the Huron County airport is nine miles and the Erie-Ottawa regional airport is 13.5 miles away. By driving on existing roads, the Huron County site is 11.5 miles and the Ottawa County site is 19.79 miles.
County commissioners had hoped for one of two consessions either a waiver of the distance requirement so the other airports would not have to give up NPIAS certification or a waiver to allow Huron County commissioners to retain control over the land at the Huron County airport site if they agreed to give up their NPIAS certification and join in a regional airport authority.
Since the airport has received federal funding for years, the FAA would take over complete control of the Huron County site and property if the airport was closed. Huron County commissioners have said in the past they would not close the Huron County airport in favor of a regional airport at NASA if they would have no control over the future use of the land and would not get any financial return for closing down a local airport. The FAA would sell the property to get reimbursement for funds already given to the airport.
Erie County officials aren't ready to give up.
"We feel that this area will change," commissioner Tom Ferrell said, adding that nine million tourists come to Sandusky every year and that number would increase with a good public airport.
The only airport in Erie County now is Griffing Sandusky Airport, a private airport. Owner Tom Griffing has said that airport will be closed down when he retires, probably within the next five years.
"Erie County needs an airport," he said. "And Huron County should not have to close down their airport."
Griffing claimed that his airport is much busier than either the Huron County airport or the regional airport in Ottawa County. He estimated his airport sees at least 10 landings and takeoffs for every one at the other two facilities. He has 48 planes housed at the airport now.
Nancy McKeen, Erie County commissioner, suggested the FAA officials who traveled to Sandusky on Monday should visit Griffing's airport.
"Somebody from the FAA needs to see the traffic at Griffing Airport," she said.
Ralph Fegley, Huron County commissioner, told the FAA officials that a new airport used both by NASA Plum Brook and private and commercial traffic would lead to tremendous economic develoment of the entire area.
Their response was that they look only at the existing situation and would not include future economic development when making their decision.
Thys also said it was illegal for the FAA to grant funds to another governmental agency, specifically NASA.
"We're not building an airport for the needs of NASA," Thys said.
Lance Warner, owner of Page Development, Inc. of Sandusky, works with both NASA Plum Brook and other area businesses. He said at the meeting that several local businesses, including Kalahari and Sawmill Creek, would increase their tourism trade and convention business increase by up to 40 percent with a public airport at the proposed site.
"Kalahari has lost conventions" he said, because now most attendees would have to fly into Cleveland and then rent a car for the drive or pay a taxi the one-way fare of $120 from Cleveland to Sandusky.
Thys said that "unique circumstances" could be considered in the FAA decision, including tourism, but said every situation is unique and Erie County couldn't argue that just because other airports within 20 nautical miles receive NPIAS certification that the agency should add an airport in Erie County. He added that, generally, two close airports have been admitted into the system if "an area has reached its capacity" and the locale, usually large metropolitan areas, needs additional air service to serve the public.
He told the assembled commissioners that the next step for their request would the be Chicago office of FAA and then Washington, D.C.
NASA Plum Brook officials have said they will need a runway for direct delivery by 2011, when they begin a new testing program. "Any place that doesn't have direct delivery is problematic," said David Stringer, director of the Plum Brook management office, last summer. "The more abuse it (equipment) takes, the less reliable it is."
Stringer said the facility has a federal contract for testing the replacement for the NASA's space shuttle. Now large cargo items such as satellites must be flown into Cleveland or Mansfield and then trucked to the Plum Brook station. But taking sensitive equipment over roads runs the risk of "jiggles and jars," he said, so direct delivery by air is the best way to bring in equipment.