With news of a proposed six-figure purchase of additional land for the Columbia County airport, the question arises: How much actual use does the airport get?
Flight data from the FAA suggests at least one answer: Not nearly so much as officials would have us believe.
Take a look at the numbers. A decade ago, the Columbia County Board of Supervisors commissioned a long-range plan for the County airport in Ghent, in part to satisfy FAA safety and other concerns.
That 2003 report included the above chart, indicating that the airport handled some 37,000 flights per year. By 2020, the airport was anticipated to be handling 52,000 flights per year, or 1,000 per week.
Meanwhile, the 2009 Town of Ghent Comprehensive Plan stated as a fact that “at present, the volume is about 50,000.” The Town also projected that the airport could handle volume as high as a whopping 230,000 transits.
So how much use does the airport really get? Other evidence suggests it is nothing even close to 50,000 flights.
Data obtained via the aviation site FlightAware shows that in the full year between December 2011 and December 2012, only 1,586 takeoffs and landings were recorded. FlightAware says it gets these numbers directly from the FAA itself.
Not 50,000. Not even 37,000. Less than 1,600.
A more detailed breakdown follows below.
“My impression is that activity at the airport has gone down significantly since the 2008 recession,” said one experienced pilot who has used the County runways for many years.
Now, not every flight into and out of a County airport gets reported to the FAA. The numbers above do not appear to include many flight school trips, which can involve a lot of repeated takeoffs and landings. Under Visual Flight Rules (“VFRs”), during good weather and high visibility some other flights are not necessarily required to file a flight plan, either.
Yet even if you triple the FlightAware numbers—adding 1,600 training flights and 1,600 VFR flights—you still wind up with total yearly activity of less than 5,000 trips in and out. That’s only about 10% of what is stated in the Ghent Comp Plan and the County’s projected master plan numbers.
In other words, 90% less that the official line.
Indeed, both basic math and interviews with neighbors suggest that there is nothing like 50,000 flights per year out of the County airport. As the comparison chart below shows, 50,000 compute to just under 140 per day... And given that Richmor Aviation made a handshake deal with neighbors about 25 years ago to limit flights to the hours between 7 am–11 pm, that would mean roughly 9 takeoffs or landings per hour, or one every 6-7 minutes.
Anyone who has driven along that section of 9H, or lived in that area, or visited friends there, knows that planes are a rarity, not something which occurs every 6 minutes. Just sit in a car in the Kozel’s parking lot, and you can verify that doesn’t happen. Or, surf over to FlightAware’s live dashboard, and see for yourself how few arrivals and departures are scheduled on a moment-to-moment basis.
Moreover, small airport use tends to be heavier in warmer months, so the average in summertime would likely be more like every 3-4 minutes, if the County and Ghent numbers were in fact real.
Using the same basic math, the projected maximum capacity of 230,000 flights cited in Ghent’s Comp Plan seems as ridiculous as it would be dangerous: 230,000 transits per year would mean almost 20,000 per month, 4,500 per week, over 600 per day, and 25 per hour around the clock including the wee hours of the night. Limiting activity to the 16-hour community noise abatement deal, there would be a plane zipping in or out every 90 seconds or so.
If such official numbers were at all accurate, living near the County airport could begin to resemble life near LaGuardia.
The question of how much the airport is really used becomes all the more relevant now that the County has voted to a approve a $629,000 offer to the owners of Meadowgreens to expand the airport and bring it more into FAA compliance. (Few were there to witness the vote, in part because the local paper of record, The Register-Star, published the wrong date for the meeting.)
Given how out-of-sync the County’s planning numbers appear to be with reality, this could pose a problem with FAA funders. When the County submits this $629,000 expansion plan to the Feds for approval, it will be interesting to see what numbers it claims.