Ask Pam Stevens if she can imagine life without the Newton City/County Airport, and she'll dip her head as she shakes it and give you a "I don't want to think about it" look. But not because she or her family use the airport much. They do not. There are no commercial flights to take her and her family off on a vacation.
The reason she doesn't want to think about life in Newton without that airport is that as director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce, she sees the economic impact that the airport makes on not only Newton but the county and region.
"It is very important," Stevens said. "They have a lot of employees out there. ... It is vital to our community."
By a lot, she means more than 400 — a number confirmed by airport management. Even more important to that number is who those employees are. The vast majority do not work for the airport or the city. They work for other companies like Park Aerospace, Hesston College and Mennonite Press. They do not fuel airplanes or attend to air passengers and pilots — they make parts, print books, spray farm fields, fly air medical flights and train future pilots.
"You look at the businesses that have located there over the years, and many of them want their own private plane to fly in and out with. It is one of the gems in our community," Stevens said. "We need to take care of it."
The estimated impact on the area community, according to airport manager Brian Palmer, is around $68 million annually.
That means maintenance, and it means keeping an eye on possible threats to the future of the airport. One of those future threats, at this time, is in Congress.
"It is house resolution 2997," Palmer said. "I would argue that this bill is the greatest single threat to general aviation, and this airport in particular, ever," Palmer said. "I say that not to be an alarmist, but to be a realist."
That resolution, which according to Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan) is attached as an amendment to a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, would privatize air traffic control.
The resolution would, in effect, hand the keys of the national air traffic control operations over to a quasi-governmental agency that would be controlled by commercial airlines and their unions.
"I believe this would harm general aviation, and that is important to Kansas," said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan). "We manufacture those airplanes. ... Our community airports would be left out of our air traffic control system."
Palmer, Moran and Estes all told The Kansan that the move could lead to fees charged for every takeoff at every airport for any flight — even for those private hobby fliers who are headed out on vacation.
That is significant for airports like Newton, where 100 of the 150 airplanes based at the airport are private flyers — people who own their own airplanes.
There are 138 public use airports in Kansas, and only one where the majority of revenue of the airport comes from commercial airlines.
"The majority (of private pilots) fly as a hobby," Palmer said. "We have already seen a decline in their flying because it is discretionary income that they use to fly. with the uncertainty of the economy over the past few years, that has dictated that they not use that discretionary income for flying. ... Most of my customers here, if it becomes pay to play, they will sell their airplanes and go buy boats."
The plan is to establish a board to oversee a non-profit organization that would control air traffic control. Eight of the 13 board members would have a vested interest in a commercial airline.
"We really would have no checks and balances," Estes said. "... It is a takeover of the air traffic control system. .... The risk is that rates and fees go up for (general aviation) and their opportunity to take off and land. ... We are working hard to stop it."
His office is not the only one working on stopping this — Moran's office has been working on that as well. Moran said that the idea of privatization appeals to some lawmakers — especially those of his own party — but wants everyone to take a second look.
"You use the word privatization with Republicans and that may sound good, but I can't think of a single thing that is good about this," Moran said.
There are concerns above and beyond fees charged. The privatization plan would grant significant control of the nation's largest airports to a private entity — and, according to Palmer, Estes and Moran — the airlines by proxy.
"Today we have corporate flight departments, but if you tell me that I can only fly into Washington National Airport, or Wichita, between midnight and 6 a.m. to do business at noon, because that is my slot and when the airlines are not using it, that becomes a problem," Palmer said. "Those corporations will say it is not worth the hassle. ... They will find another way to do business. The reason that companies have corporate flight departments is for ease of operations."
If general and private aviation suffer, smaller airports like Newton will suffer right along with it. That is what has so many concerned — including Estes and Moran.
They both see this as a larger issue. Moran pointed to airports in Kansas where businesses close to them rely on having access to an airfield and it is critical to their business and turning over a system constructed by taxpayers to a private entity. On this one, he and Estes agree.
"This affects airports throughout the country, and you have a lot of jobs that are tied to the airfield itself," Estes said.
They also both have a concern about giving an infrastructure constructed with public funds to a private entity. That infrastructure cost about $40 billion to construct. Money to maintain the system is generated through taxes on air travel tickets, aviation fuel and user fees in aviation.
Estes told the Kansan that Congress needs to reauthorize the FAA, an effort that Moran said this effort jeopardized. The last authorization of the FAA expired Sept. 3. Congress took action to extend that authorization and has placed a new bill on the docket that contains the amendment to privatize air traffic control.
"We have five months left to convince them to take this out," Estes said. "... We want to take that section out. We need to reauthorize the FAA and reauthorize it permanently."