Madison Municipal Seeks Relief from FAA Ruling on Crops

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

It has been more than five years since US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after running into a flock of geese shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. But the airport industry is still feeling the effects of the incident.

Not surprisingly, the "Miracle on the Hudson" prompted more FAA scrutiny of bird activity at airports throughout the United States. While much of the agency's attention has been focused at large airports on the East and West coasts, even small airports in the central part of the country are being affected.

One such facility is Madison Municipal Airport (MDS), a general aviation field in southeastern South Dakota with approximately 32,000 operations per year. Airport Manager Morris Riggin is grappling with how to keep the small airport financially solvent while complying with stricter FAA wildlife management regulations.

Project: Bird Management
Location: Madison (SD) Municipal Airport
Annual Operations: 32,000
Bird Mitigation Strategies: Draining wetlands; changing crops; planting prairie grass
Annual Income from Renting Land
to Farmers:
Other Income: Hangar rental ($3,500); fuel sales ($12,000)
Crops Currently Grown: Corn; soybeans
Proposed New Crop: Alfalfa
Other Wildlife Attractants: 20 acres of wetlands
Project Goals: Reduce potential risk of bird strikes by making airport grounds less attractive to geese & ducks; preserve land rental income by having renters grow alfalfa vs. corn & soybeans

Riggin's challenge is two-fold: the cost of paying for new measures to discourage waterfowl from nesting at MDS, plus the potential loss of its primary revenue source. "Last fall, the FAA told us we should not farm the land on airport property anymore, because it would continue to attract waterfowl," he explains. "That was a big problem, because renting out our land to farmers was the chief source of income for us."

Currently, MDS earns about $38,000 per year renting land to local farmers for corn, soybean and hay crops at about $225 per acre. In contrast, it earns about $12,000 per year in fuel sales and $3,500 annually from hangar rental.

Seeking a compromise, Riggin appealed to the FAA. "They told us that if we could prove an economic hardship, we could plant alfalfa instead," he reports. Although switching to alfalfa, which is less compelling to birds, would still prompt a $3,000 revenue loss, Riggin considers that amount "more manageable." Fortunately, the farmer who rents most of the airport land raises cattle, so he is willing to raise alfalfa for livestock feed. Few farmers in the area still raise cattle.

This summer, corn and soybeans are still being grown on airport property. However, once these crops are harvested, the airport will prepare the land for growing alfalfa next year.

Finding Safe Middle Ground

The cost side of the wildlife issue at MDS includes wetlands and prairie grass.

Last fall, the FAA instructed the airport to drain several natural sloughs (wetlands) on its property to prevent bird/plane collisions. Migrating birds, however, have used the sloughs for generations - without interfering with aircraft operations, notes Riggin. While he shares the FAA's safety concerns and understands the sensitivity surrounding the issue of bird strikes, he questions whether all of the associated regulations should apply to all airports. "I probably fly in and out of this airport more than anyone, and I would be the first one to complain if I thought birds were a threat," he emphasizes. "But birds are not really an issue at this airport, and I have been flying out of here for 40 years."

Beyond bearing the expense of draining the sloughs, the airport would also need to demonstrate to the state Department of Natural Resources that waterfowl have enough other wetlands nearby.

The FAA has also instructed the airport to plant prairie grass, which needs to be 6 to 12 inches high. "That would be about 230 acres we would have to mow," Riggin notes. "Our best bid for that job was $70 an acre. That comes to $16,000 a session, and it would probably have to be mowed three times a year. So the total cost to us would be about $48,000. The city of Madison, which owns the airport, could not afford that."

Riggin is eager to reach an agreement with the FAA about bird mitigation, because Madison officials want to build a new parallel taxiway during the next several years - a project that requires buildings to be moved so they don't block the line of sight for the new taxiway. Local officials also want to expand the airport's apron. Typically, the FAA provides about 90% of the funding for such construction; the city pays 6% and the state pays 4%.

Given the effect of federal budget cuts on the FAA, the airport is not certain that funds will be readily available for its construction plans. "They told us to prioritize our schedule for this construction," Riggin reports, noting that the projects may be split between 2015 and 2016 to help secure funding. "Everything is up in the air; but by the end of this summer, we hope to have a better idea from the FAA about how to proceed."

In the meantime, he remains hopeful about reaching an agreement with the FAA that ensures safety while preserving the airport's ability to generate revenue by renting its land. "Up until this spring, the FAA was adamant on their rulings," he recounts. "Now that they understand our situation, they seem more willing to compromise."

The dialog MDS is having with the FAA may help other airports struggling with the economic realities of complying with stricter bird management requirements. "There are a lot of little airports that depend on renting out land. No one has ever challenged the FAA before, so perhaps they will ease their restrictions a bit," theorizes Riggin.

His optimism may be warranted. FAA Spokesperson Elizabeth Isham Cory stresses the cooperative nature of developing wildlife management plans. "The FAA is always concerned about anything that can attract wildlife to an airfield," Cory explains. "The FAA inspects all airports, and any airport with a potential wildlife hazard would be required to develop a plan.

"Our agency has planners and inspectors assigned to each airport," she continues. "And the development of a plan is part of a cooperative process. In the case of the Madison airport, we continue to work with them to develop their wildlife mitigation plan. There is no hard-and-fast deadline, so long as it remains a progressive process."


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