Lately there has been significant misinformation and misunderstanding regarding the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC) efforts to achieve community consensus regarding the future of Westerly and other general aviation airports in Rhode Island. In an effort to set the record straight, it is worthwhile to reiterate that the mission of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation is to provide for “safe, secure, efficient and convenient air transportation for Rhode Island and the New England region.”
It is no coincidence that “safety” is listed as the primary mission of RIAC. The preservation of safe airspace is the principle mandate of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for obvious reasons. Yet while RIAC is held accountable for ensuring the safety of pilots, passengers and those in surrounding communities, the ultimate responsibility to preserve safe airspace is one that must be shared by all, most especially community leaders who have been called upon to decide the future of airports in their cities and towns.
There’s an old adage that by NOT deciding, one IS deciding.
For those cities and towns that have for decades declined to address zoning and other issues related to alleviating dangerous runway obstructions, they have slowly but surely been deciding to accept constraints on the utility of their airport, as well as constraints on the welfare of local residents and stakeholders. Quite simply, as airspace obstructions such as trees continue to grow and without the ability to mitigate these hazards, airport runways will effectively be shortened until they can no longer safely accommodate takeoff and landing.
By choosing not to decide issues of passenger and residential safety, those communities are effectively deciding to embark on a path that risks lives along the way to the eventual closure of local airports. Trees that penetrate approach surfaces right next to a runway’s end are a hazard. Rhode Island recognized this issue 74 years ago in 1946, when legislation was originally introduced and by 1999 (Title 1 Aeronautics, Chapter 1-3 Airport Zoning, § 1-3-5), required towns to adopt, administer and enforce, airport zoning regulations. Airport Zoning should specify permitted land uses as well as regulate and restrict the height of structures and trees within airport hazard areas. Due to the absence of this zoning, trees have grown into the approach surfaces. RIAC has no choice but to reduce the length of airport runways to maintain public safety.
Ultimately, communities do have the right to decide whether or not they want to continue to host general aviation airports. If local leaders decide that airport closures are in their best interests, RIAC will respect that decision. Should local communities decide that they do in fact want to keep local airports open and maintain full utility, then all should be able to agree that such airports MUST be maintained in a way that protects the lives of those in the air and those on the ground. In the meantime RIAC will continue to do its best to ensure all public airports provide a safe, secure, efficient and convenient airport system while balancing fiscal, civic and environmental stewardship.
John J. Goodman
The writer is the director of media and public relations for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.