Relationships between airports and their surrounding communities have long been fraught. Who can forget the conflict between airport manager Mel Bakersfield and local residents over landing restrictions at Chicago’s fictional Lincoln International Airport in the iconic 1970s film Airport? Little has changed.
Last month, residents of Gwinnett County, Georgia – a suburban county northeast of Atlanta – overwhelmed the monthly county board of commissioners meeting with their outspoken opposition to a proposal to privatize local Briscoe Field and add commercial flights. With many attendees wearing “No Airport Expansion” t-shirts, complaints ranged from aircraft noise to added traffic on local roads and the board’s lack of community input before taking steps to privatize the airport.
“Lawrenceville grew up around Briscoe Field,” said Rick Schneider, a county resident and member of the local Citizens for a Better Gwinnett group. “Briscoe Field isn’t going to grow up around Lawrenceville.” The airport is located just to the northeast of the city.
While opposition to commercial air service is nothing new, how it has come about in Gwinnett is a bit unusual. In December 2009, Propeller Investments submitted an unsolicited proposal to the county to buy Briscoe Field, build a 10-gate terminal and attract up to 20 flights per day. In response, the board decided to apply for one of the two remaining slots (only five are available) in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Its application was approved this past May and proposals for privatization of the airport were formally solicited in July. What makes the situation unusual is how this is over a private proposal to add commercial air service and expand the airport – not a local political move.
The process incensed residents, no matter who was behind it. As many people expressed at the September 21 board meeting, while they are not necessarily opposed to privatization, they are opposed to adding commercial service and to moving forward without public input – something the process has lacked thus far.
Even board chairman Charles Bannister acknowledged that the county had not engaged the public. He said that it felt the need to move forward quickly in order to secure one of the few remaining slots in the FAA program before they were gone and added, repeatedly, that there would be “numerous and robust” public meetings before a final decision was made. (Bannister resigned earlier this month after appearing before a special grand jury investigating county land purchases.)
But the board’s misstep has already been made. By moving quickly on Propeller’s unsolicited proposal without residents’ input – even asking them whether they wanted to privatize the airport – a critical opportunity to legitimize the plan was lost.
John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise and co-author of the book Aerotropolis, and his Kenan colleague Stephen Appold, a senior research associate, created a pyramid of “successful airport-neighbor relations” that has public relations at the top. In a recent article, they wrote about many ways an airport and community can co-exist harmoniously but emphasized that community outreach efforts are of utmost importance to good relations because they bring issues to light before they become crises.
Whether or not the debate over Briscoe Field has become a crisis is debatable but it is likely that the county board could have avoided much of the current outcry by involving residents earlier in the process. No decision has yet to be made over the future of the airport but both sides can look forward to a robust round of public meetings on the topic.