La PORTE — Just because an airport doesn't have commercial airliners taking off and taxiing on its runways doesn't make it irrelevant.
While small community airports, such as the La Porte Municipal Airport, often fly under the radar, they serve an essential role in the local economies, according to Andy Miller, the Great Lakes Ambassador with the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association. Also called general aviation airports, these facilities employ many high-skilled workers and help attract new businesses to their communities, Miller said.
Unfortunately, many take these fixtures for granted. Over the past 40 years, nearly 30 percent of general aviation airports have closed their hangers.
By the time local leaders what they've lost, it's often too late.
"The unfortunate reality is that it takes years and years and years of work to build an airport," Miller said. "It hasn't actually been done in over a decade. On the other hand, you see communities neglecting the beautiful airport they have because they don't realize what an economic engine it could be."
Miller shared more about the critical role small airports play during his presentation at the Rotary Club of La Porte's recent airport dinner. Around 50 Rotarians, city leaders, aviation officials and other guests attended the event, which took place inside the Ake Hanger at the La Porte airfield.
The club invited Miller, a nationally recognized aviation educator and advocate, to serve as the evening's keynote speaker. The Wisconsin man is a member of the AOPA, a lobbying organization that was formed in 1939 to push back against a proposed civilian aviation ban that some advocated for at the time.
"One of our main goals is still fighting off those stupid ideas that some of those people in Washington get pretty regularly," Miller joked.
One of the nonprofit's leading causes is protecting general aviation airports like La Porte's, which make up around 25 percent of the country's airfields, Miller said. Every year, an average of 145 million people fly out of and into such facilities, an impressive figure, as most civilian aircraft only hold between two to eight passengers, he added.
Small airfields serve several other vital functions, like linking communities to the outside world during natural disasters, which often make ground-based transportation difficult. Many corporations will only consider opening new facilities in municipalities that have an airport, as it allows executives to use private jets for business.
Despite these advantages and the general upward trajectory of aviation in recent years, general aviation airports are still facing significant headwinds, Miller said. Since the early 1970s, nearly 2,000 small airfields have closed down, often due to noise complaints from residents or community leaders wanting to convert their land for private use.
One notable example of this trend is Chicago's famed Meigs Field, which closed in 2003. Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city crews to begin demolishing the runway March 30 of that year, without giving proper notice to the Federal Aviation Administration beforehand, Miller said.
"The planes that were parked there that day couldn't even take off," he said. "They had to take off on the taxi lanes instead of the runway. It was a very, very sad and terrible thing. The real tragedy is that now it's just a big dump...they never did anything with it."
AOPA suggests several ways that the public can get involved in the fight to keep general aviation airports alive. One of the simplest methods is for people to attend functions and fundraisers hosted at these facilities, such as Monday's Rotary dinner, Miller said.
"In particular, I'd ask you to see if you to bring along some young people," he said. "See if you can expose them to some of these things that are going on in aviation."
Community members should also pay attention to news involving their local airport, and make calls to city or state leaders if something threatens it. After all, the voice of residents matters far more to decision-makers than that of lobbyists, Miller said.