Life doesn’t get much more convenient for a private plane owner than taxiing from the driveway of his or her home through a special fence opening directly onto an airport taxiway or runway.
The popularity of such “hangar homes” on property adjacent to small public airports is growing. And so is concern among federal officials that such arrangements can endanger safety and limit the ability of airports to expand and could be a misuse of government money.
A House committee scheduled a hearing Wednesday on a recent Federal Aviation Administration proposal to prevent public airports from signing new “through-the-fence” agreements with real estate developers and homeowners.
FAA officials have said they have no problem with private airparks that have similar access agreements with homeowners. Those airparks don’t receive federal dollars. But airports that are opened to the public usually rely on the $3.5 billion in grants the FAA makes annually to airports to help pay for new runways, safety equipment and other improvements.
Earlier this month, the FAA proposed that grants be cut off to public airports that enter into new agreements. The agency is also looking at whether the existing agreements with homeowners and developers at 72 public airports conflict with the promises the airports made when they accepted government money.
“This situation has raised questions regarding whether, in some instances, these federal investments primarily benefit private interests at the expense of pursuing national policy objectives,” said a briefing paper prepared for the hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff.
Homeowners and the Experimental Aircraft Association say the problems have been overblown. Access fees from such arrangements, they say, help airports raise money.
Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., introduced a bill earlier this year to allow airports to continue to enter into new through-the-fence agreements. The bill has six co-sponsors, including the senior Republican on the aviation subcommittee, Rep. Thomas Petri of Wisconsin.
Hangar homes can command prices far exceeding other homes in the same community. For example, in Weld County, Colo., where the median single-family home is $250,600, houses in a subdivision with through-the-fence access to the Erie Municipal Airport sell for as much as $1.1 million.
Other problems include pets, people and private vehicles — including golf carts — wandering through fence openings onto airport tarmacs, including taxiways. An FAA photo included in the paper depicts a child’s play set in the backyard of a hangar home only yards from an airport taxiway.
Buildings and other structures erected by residents have also interfered with navigational radio signals and efforts to keep planes from coming too close together. Some airports have been unable to make “safety critical improvements” to taxiways and runways because of limitations resulting from the through-the-fence arrangements, the briefing paper said.
At the publicly owned Sandpoint Airport in Sandpoint, Idaho, where a developer is building a subdivision of single-family homes, plans call for homeowners to taxi their planes across the midpoint of the airport’s runway before taxiing down the side of the runway in order to get in position for takeoff. That kind of procedure, called a “back taxi,” is considered by pilots and the FAA to be especially dangerous because pilots on final approach for a landing may not see a plane crossing the runway until it’s too late. The situation is especially risky at small airports like Sandpoint where there are no air traffic controllers to direct planes.
The problem could be corrected with the construction of a second taxiway on the same side of the runway as the fence opening, but airport officials say they can’t do that because it would interfere with agreements made with homeowners, the briefing paper said.