General Aviation Airports:

Unauthorized Land Use Highlights Need for Improved Oversight and Enforcement

RCED-99-109: Published: May 7, 1999. Publicly Released: May 7, 1999.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO provided information on: (1) the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) monitoring of general aviation airports' compliance with federal land-use requirements; and (2) FAA's use of enforcement tools to resolve cases of noncompliance.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA does not adequately monitor general aviation airports' compliance with federal requirements and does not have the internal controls in place to protect the federal government's investment in the airports from mismanagement, fraud, waste, and abuse; (2) although FAA's compliance policy clearly calls for monitoring airports to ensure they meet federal requirements, only 4 of FAA's 23 field offices monitor compliance; (3) this monitoring, however, relies primarily on airports themselves certifying that they are complying with federal requirements; (4) in 1994, the Department of Transportation's Inspector General concluded that relying on such certifications was insufficient for ensuring compliance with federal requirements on revenue use, noting that 14 of the 15 airport owners identified as not complying with revenue use requirements had previously certified that they were in compliance; (5) one result of FAA's lack of monitoring is that airports' unauthorized use of land has gone undetected in some cases for over a decade; (6) unauthorized use has resulted in the loss or diversion of millions of dollars in airport revenues from general aviation airports, typically owned by a local government; (7) in some cases, increased risks to aviation safety also resulted; (8) FAA determined that birds attracted by an unauthorized landfill at Hesler-Noble Field in Laurel, Mississippi, posed a possible danger to aircraft; (9) FAA generally addresses airports' noncompliance with federal requirements through negotiation and settlement rather than the use of available enforcement actions; and (10) when negotiations are unsuccessful and persistent noncompliance occurs, FAA has not always taken appropriate enforcement action--such as withholding transportation grants, taking back the title to airport land, or taking action through the courts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000, FAA revised its compliance policy guidance to provide for on-site inspections, as recommended by GAO. In 2001, FAA began its program of 18 field visits per year (two visits per region per year). FAA also disseminated policy directing FAA field offices to resolve informal complaints and address potential items of noncompliance at federally obligated airports. In 2000, FAA completed its report to Congress detailing its planned compliance efforts as required by the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment Reform Act for the 21st Century (P.L. 106-181).

    Recommendation: To effectively implement the internal controls contained in FAA's compliance policy, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to revise current compliance policy guidance to airports to require regularly scheduled monitoring methods that provide for periodic on-site visits. In conjunction with periodic on-site visits, the monitoring component could include requiring periodic self-certifications of compliance from all airports and formally coordinating with interested parties who may have information about airports' compliance, such as general aviation organization field representatives. In addition, FAA should provide specific criteria for initiating enforcement action and set reasonable timeframes for taking progressively stronger enforcement actions in cases in which efforts to achieve voluntary corrective action are unsuccessful.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While FAA did not concur with the recommendation to hold field offices accountable for taking timely enforcement actions (because field offices share accountability with headquarters), FAA's current policy holds the headquarters Airports Compliance Division primarily responsible for "resolving matters that involve the Federal obligations of airport sponsors contained in their Federal grant assurances, documents transferring Federal property to airport sponsors for airport purposes, and appropriate Federal legislation."

    Recommendation: In those cases of noncompliance that FAA cannot resolve in a reasonable period of time, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to apply the enforcement tools already provided by Congress by holding field offices accountable for taking enforcement actions, particularly in cases of long-term, repeated, or willful unauthorized land or revenue use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA reviewed the cases identified by GAO, concluded that they do not constitute a material weakness, and did not meet the criteria to be included in the Secretary's annual report to the President and Congress.

    Recommendation: Until FAA develops and implements a compliance and enforcement program that provides adequate internal control over airports' compliance with federal requirements, the Administrator, FAA, should determine whether the internal control weakness disclosed in this report should be included when providing information to the Secretary for inclusion in the Secretary's annual report to the President and Congress, as required by the Federal Managers' Financial Integrity Act of 1982.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Regarding the long-standing instance of non-compliance and revenue diversion at the Queen City Municipal Airport, FAA said that, with the assistance of the Attorney Generals' office, they had reached a settlement with Queen City Airport officials that resolved non-compliant use of airport land and transferred ownership of the airport to a new owner. Regarding the long-standing instance of non-compliance and revenue diversion at the Bader Field, FAA said that its field office had obtained agreement from the airport sponsor to continue operation of the airport until its federal obligations expire in six years.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, FAA, should resolve long-standing instances of noncompliance and revenue diversion by taking enforcement action to protect the public investment in aviation at the Queen City Municipal Airport and at Bader Field. FAA should also require that Kansas City obtain a fair market appraisal of the value of airport land and, upon closing Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport, reinvest an amount equal to the appraised value in local area airports to promote aviation, as required by FAA's policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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