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July 19, 2022Episode 37. On the Ascent: General aviation in Texas is more indispensable than ever.
FEATURING: Jeff Borowiec, Jim Halley
Numbering nearly 300, Texas has more community airports than counties. Largely out of view and out of mind for most of us, they are nonetheless central to the state’s prosperity and security.
About Our Guests
Senior Research Scientist
Jeff Borowiec is part of TTI’s Infrastructure Investment Analysis Program in College Station, Texas, where he also serves as the aviation practice leader. He has more than 27 years of experience in a variety of areas that primarily include aviation system planning and research, aviation education, and transportation economics and finance. He recently served two terms as chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Standing Committee on Aviation System Planning. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and also holds a remote pilot certificate with an sUAS rating.
Airport Planning and Programming Director, TxDOT Aviation Division
As airport planning and programming director for the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT’s) Aviation Division, Jim Halley is responsible for the development of TxDOT Aviation’s Capital Improvement Program, airport coordination, project development, environmental reviews, land acquisition, and planning studies oversight. Jim is an accredited airport executive and airport certified employee through the American Association of Airport Executives, a licensed skydiver through the U.S. Parachute Association, and was named to Airport Business Magazine’s “Top 40 under 40 Aviation Professionals” in 2017.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. When we talk about airports, for most of us, our mental picture is one of hefty commercial jets, constantly loading and unloading endless streams of passengers and tons of freight — 24-7. But there’s another side to aviation in Texas. It’s a story told by the myriad comings and goings at almost 300 general aviation facilities, many with only a single runway and a terminal no bigger than your average single-family home. These are the airports that most of us never directly use and never see up close, but that doesn’t mean they’re not essential to the quality of life in Texas. Our two guests today are here to help us understand why they’re so important. Jim Halley is the director of planning and programming in the aviation division at the Texas Department of Transportation. Jeff Borowiec is a senior research scientist in the Infrastructure Investment and Analysis Program at TTI. Jim and Jeff — thanks very much for joining our conversation today.
Jim Halley (guest) (01:37):
Thanks for having us.
Jeff Borowiec (guest) (01:38):
Good to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:39):
When I was getting ready for our conversation today, I did just a little background reading and found out that Texas has more general aviation airports than counties?
Jim Halley (01:48):
I don’t know how many counties we have, but.
Bernie Fette (01:49):
Two hundred, fifty-four.
Jeff Borowiec (01:51):
254. So, so that’s true. Yeah. ‘Cause we’re looking at about 289 airports in the, in the system.
Bernie Fette (01:58):
Okay. And so the presence of those facilities across the state is maybe considerably more vast than most people, I think, might realize. Can you give us a little history? Can we start there?
Jeff Borowiec (02:12):
Sure. So we’ve got about 289 airports in the system developed over time. Dates back to 1915 to 1920 or so I think is when we first saw the first airports. Cities started getting involved in airport development, you know, when federal money came along. And so we started seeing that in the twenties, the mid-twenties and after World War II, we saw a lot of military bases, um, that were surplused move into the system. So the system is quite diverse today. We have a lot of small rural airports and we have obviously some large commercial service airports, but we have a lot of large business aviation airports as well in our urban areas.
Jim Halley (02:58):
Yeah. So, so touching on what Jeff said, you know, 280, depending on what day 4, 5, 7, it fluctuates on the day. That’s what’s in the Texas airport system plan.
Bernie Fette (03:09):
Now does that system exclude the big D-FW airport? Hobby? The big commercial airports, or is that including everything.
Jim Halley (03:17):
They’re in our system, we don’t fund them. They go directly to the federal aviation administration, the FAA. Okay. There’s uh, a handful of general aviation airports that also remain with the FAA, but the majority of them stay within a Texas DOT’s program, TxDOT’s program. And those 285-ish airports, general aviation airports that Jeff is mentioning does not include about 1,800 private general aviation facilities. And that could be a ranch, a farm strip, that could be a hospital helipad. So there’s about 1,800 private-use facilities throughout the state that we don’t actually even deal with. Yeah, those are all private.
Bernie Fette (04:02):
So whenever we’re talking about general aviation in Texas, the focus that you’re mentioning there is really on those 280-ish facilities.
Jim Halley (04:11):
Correct. And they interact to some degree with those 1,800 other private-use facilities. But our main focus at TxDOT Aviation is those general aviation airports in the Texas Airport System Plan — the TASP.
Jeff Borowiec (04:26):
When Jim refers to the system, we’re talking about those that are eligible for federal or state funding, so of the other 1,800 or so that Jim mentioned, those aren’t eligible for federal funding. We don’t consider those to be part of the Texas Airport System Plan. So of those 289, 24 or 5 of those are commercial service that deal directly with the FAA. And it’s those remaining airports that are the focus of TxDOT’s program. And when we talk about general aviation, we’re really talking about pretty much everything that isn’t commercial airlines and military.
Bernie Fette (05:02):
Okay. So that’s where you draw the line.
Jeff Borowiec (05:04):
Yeah. So it’s a pretty easy definition. Anything that’s not military or commercial service is general aviation and that includes business, you know, firefighting, air, ambulance ag operators.
Bernie Fette (05:14):
Okay. Now we’re getting into the next thing I wanted to ask you about. It might be easy to think that those are just the airports that serve the people who are well off enough to have their own private aircraft, but general aviation is far, far bigger than that, right?
Jeff Borowiec (05:29):
Right. Well, we certainly, you do have some of that, but we have a lot of other activity that goes on. And
Bernie Fette (05:35):
Uh, but tell us about that. What, what else does general aviation entail?
Jeff Borowiec (05:38):
So you have a lot of flight instruction that goes on. You have aeromedical that goes on, we see corporations, businesses using airports all the time, but it’s not necessarily to fly their CEOs and their executives around. I’ve been at airports where I’ve seen corporate jets fly in and you see folks get off the plane that are auditors or plant inspectors. So it’s not just the upper high end that we see. Oftentimes businesses will prefer to have airports located in the communities where they want to do business and build facilities because they want the access for their executives, for their vendors, for their staff. And so airports are often high on the list when it comes to making decision locations too. So it’s very much an economic development tool in that respect.
Bernie Fette (06:28):
So for all of us who do not use general aviation airports directly, why should we value them at all?
Jim Halley (06:37):
Well, they support our economy. I mean, just in Texas alone, aviation contributes about $94.3 billion in annual economic activity supporting nearly 800,000 jobs with an annual payroll of over $30 billion. And that study was conducted in 2018 using data that is now at least four years old. So inevitably that number has gone up.
Bernie Fette (07:02):
So with a, with an impact of more than $90 billion a year on the state’s economy, that puts it ahead of a lot of the major industries in Texas then, would it not?
Jim Halley (07:13):
Well, to put it in perspective, the Dallas Cowboys are worth $6.5 billion.
Bernie Fette (07:17):
Jim Halley (07:17):
So it’s significantly larger than that. Right? Valero — $47.7 billion. Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is $67 billion. So Texas aviation is greater than all of that.
Bernie Fette (07:31):
Could you expand a little bit on some of those uses, you said agricultural, medical — could you touch just a little bit more on some of the details whenever we talk about how those pieces of general aviation, what, what they look like?
Jeff Borowiec (07:44):
Sure. So with respect to, um, agricultural aviation, we all, you know, think of the crop dusters that we see when we travel the roads of the state. But if you think about the value of the crops that they protect, particularly with cotton, we pretty much see agricultural activity pretty much year-round across the state from north to south. So whether they’re, you know, spraying herbicides, fertilizing, defoliant for cotton years ago, we had a pretty active bowl weal eradication program. These tools, these aircraft are used to protect these crops and cotton alone is a multi-billion dollar crop in this state. So it’s pretty important to the viability of that in our state and, and in the country too, considering we export some of that. So with aeromedical, a lot of times you don’t think about needing services until you get in a car accident or something happens. You have to be life flighted around, but mm-hmm, <affirmative>, uh, we have a pretty robust aeromedical industry in our state. It’s not just helicopters, you know, in urban areas. It’s also patients being transported by fixed-wing aircraft from one part of the state to the other. So it’s really something that does touch all of our lives, whether we know it or not.
Bernie Fette (08:57):
That’s kind of a broad look. I’m curious about how general aviation might benefit a specific area of the state. Say, if we can take south Texas, for instance, why is general aviation so important for instance, to the Rio Grande Valley?
Jim Halley (09:13):
Well, our statewide partners at DPS have a fleet of aircraft that they use to protect our border and keep our state and our nation safe. That’s that’s a huge part of what DPS’s role is, is to go down there. You know, the military uses our facilities, our border with any country, whether it’s the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Canada, Mexico, those entry points into the United States have to be kept safe and patrolling that border with air assets for the military is also vitally important, whether it’s state assets, DPS, whether it’s Parks and Wildlife inspecting and making sure that the parks are up to a certain standard, whether it’s our military patrolling those general aviation airports in the valley serve as a base of operations, a place to stop and get fuel. If there’s a mechanical issue or an emergency, a safe place for those aircraft to land for crews to rest for all of these different things, to enable those entities, to continue to provide that safety and security and those services, not just to Texas, but to the entire country.
Bernie Fette (10:25):
I’m guessing that both of you have had a lot of contact with people who manage and use these community airports and you know, a lot about their experiences. Surely you might have some favorite stories.
Jeff Borowiec (10:39):
Sure. I know Jim and I both have probably run into a lot of folks and heard some great stories. The one that always sticks out to me is Aransas County Airport with the hurricane Harvey in 2017 with the airport manager and his staff riding out the storm there so that they can be on location to try to bring the airport back into working condition the next day. So it could be utilized for, you know, recovery operations and, and other emergency providers. That one sticks out to me. I visited there probably several months, a few months after that happened and had a great conversation with him and hearing, you know, the role that that airport played. So they hosted numerous emergency service providers. They housed hundreds and hundreds of utility trucks who were, uh, staging there to help bring the power back to the community. And then the airport then can be used to bring in supplies for the community as well. But it provides access, you know, to the rest of the world for a community that may be cut off, you know, after a storm like that. So their ability to bring in emergency services and, and goods and providers is just, uh, pretty significant.
Bernie Fette (11:48):
So in addition to the medical and the agricultural purposes that you mentioned earlier, you’re giving us another idea in terms of disaster response.
Jeff Borowiec (11:56):
Bernie Fette (11:56):
The role that, uh, these airports play.
Jeff Borowiec (11:59):
Bernie Fette (11:59):
What about you, Jim? What sticks out in your mind and the stories that you’ve heard over your time?
Jim Halley (12:04):
So I think a very unique story I know of is Kelly Field down in San Antonio. Kelly Field is a military joint-use facility. So the Air Force owns and operates part of it. And then Port San Antonio has access to their own section of the facility. And what the port has done is developed itself into an industrial airport. It’s still, if we have to classify it, we still classify it as general aviation, but it’s really more industrial. And their largest tenant, Boeing, is doing all of the fixes on the 737 Maxes. We all know that story, right? And all of those fixes are happening here in Texas, in San Antonio at Kelly Field. The 737 is the number-one commercial aircraft of all time. And to see those aircraft going through that facility, Boeing doing what they have to do, working with those airlines to get those aircraft back into service, is keeping global air travel going.
Bernie Fette (13:13):
I think that I’ve read at least a couple of stories about general aviation’s role during the pandemic. Do any stories come to mind on that topic?
Jim Halley (13:20):
So obviously there’s the movement of goods. We became more reliant on ordering things online and having those shipped. It’s not just a large jet landing at Houston or D-FW it’s smaller aircraft FedEx, all the providers of shipping services employ in addition to large jet aircraft, much smaller general aviation aircraft that they fly in and out of general aviation airports in, in much smaller airports. So that continues to be a role that general aviation is filling a much larger logistics and supply chain industry. Texas — we have a very high reliance on the supply chain and logistics. We’re a very large state, we’re a very vast state. So to get goods across the state in and out of the state is very important for us. But then when you look at specific to the pandemic, the vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna Johnson and Johnson, they’re not transporting these vaccines on a bus. They’re putting them on planes because those vaccines need to get to the people as quickly as possible. And that is the main benefit. One of many great benefits of air cargo is the ability to take high-value, time-sensitive items and get them to where they need to be quickly, efficiently and safely. And that is a major role of general aviation. It’s not just the large commercial service airports. It happens at at general aviation airports all across the state.
Bernie Fette (14:52):
And, and, and before the vaccines, I guess it was masks, other medical supplies?
Jim Halley (14:58):
Testing, it’s everything in involved in it, you know, I’m sure there were a lot of people who contracted COVID who needed to be transported somewhere. And especially with the, the large rural areas that we have in Texas very often, the only way to access healthcare, speaking specifically to the pandemic, would be through either a fixed-wing medical transport air ambulance, or to be life-flighted.
Bernie Fette (15:23):
So general aviation’s contribution during the pandemic probably started the day that the pandemic started, sounds like.
Jim Halley (15:30):
Bernie Fette (15:32):
Take general aviation out of the picture of Texas transportation. And what does Texas look like?
Jeff Borowiec (15:39):
Well, we’re $95 billion poorer, right, Jim? <Laugh>.
Jim Halley (15:43):
Jeff Borowiec (15:44):
Each year. Well, I think that in many cases it could be a matter of life and death. So we’re talking about time. We’re talking about the ability to, to do things quicker, get people places faster where time is money. I’m not sure I even want to think about what that looks like, <laugh> considering what those adverse impacts might be. If we couldn’t get trauma patients to a hospital in time, you know, what might happen to the value of, of billions, of dollars worth of crops, if we couldn’t protect them, how long things might take if we had to, to travel by truck and car, especially in congested roadways. So I, you know, I, I think it would look quite different and not for the better,
Jim Halley (16:24):
Well, Jeff stole my answer. <Laugh> So, but I’m gonna expand on it. So, if, if aviation were not invented, I’d be dead. I have been life-flighted.
Bernie Fette (16:35):
Jim Halley (16:36):
Yes. So without aviation, I would not be sitting here today. So I have a very personal connection and belief in the benefits of aviation. You don’t need general aviation until you need it. It’s one of those unique things that you don’t understand the benefit of it until all of a sudden it is the only thing that matters to you that can save your life. The economy side of things, that nearly a hundred billion dollars a year in annual economic activity, all the businesses that have stayed in Texas or relocated to Texas because of our aviation system, or who have thrived because of our aviation system and allowed them to connect across the state across the country and across the world, really helps diversify our economy, our population, our economic resilience. It’s really critical to our way of life, as Texans. Aviation really sustains who we are, what we are and what we’re able to accomplish in this state.
Bernie Fette (17:36):
Let’s look beyond our own state borders for just a minute. We have the Interstate Highway System that links us by land to other parts of the country. Are there any parallels between that highway system and the general aviation network around the country?
Jeff Borowiec (17:51):
Well, I always think of that famous quote, Bernie, that if you build a mile of roadway, you go one mile, but if you build a mile of runway, you can go anywhere. And so we often think of these airports as providing access to the rest of the world for these communities. You know, whether it’s from rural Texas to, you know, Dallas or San Antonio, or whether it’s to Oklahoma City or Chicago or New York. So it really provides that access to go anywhere.
Jim Halley (18:18):
And very often those airports are somebody’s first and last impression of Texas mm-hmm <affirmative> or of the, the city or the county that they’re visiting. So those airports by bringing in people are really very important.
Bernie Fette (18:32):
We talked a little, I think about the changes in, in general aviation, since that beginning of history that you mentioned, I think you’re both familiar with what promises to be the next big change. So let’s talk about urban air mobility.
Jeff Borowiec (18:47):
Sure. So last year the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 763, which established an urban air mobility advisory committee. It essentially looks like, you know, new generation electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
Bernie Fette (19:05):
So think personal helicopters almost just by appearance.
Jeff Borowiec (19:08):
Yeah. Maybe four or five passenger vehicles that we’ll see in a couple of use cases, at least initially, you know, flying within an urban area, maybe regionally. So we’re looking at probably within a hundred miles or so aircraft that can fly for 60 minutes or so at, uh, about four, 500 feet, roughly.
Bernie Fette (19:28):
Electrically powered, right?
Jeff Borowiec (19:29):
Electric powered. Right. Yeah. And, uh, then we, we will probably see some, you know, if you think you can think Uber, you know, but in the air and, and in fact Uber’s Elevate group was one of the initial thinkers and leaders on this topic, but we may also see some, some cargo operations too, some smaller air cargo operations within urban areas as well.
Bernie Fette (19:50):
Urban air mobility sounds like it could be a really big change in general aviation and aviation in general, in Texas, very visible one. How else might you expect aviation in Texas to change perhaps in ways that aren’t quite as dramatic?
Jim Halley (20:05):
I think generally the, the overall sustainability, resilience and environmental stewardship of aviation is something that is a hot topic right now. We’re looking at alternative fuels across the industry. And that’s something that general aviation is involved in as well. Moving away from traditional fuels to electric or biofuels. You have airlines working with the aircraft manufacturers to really, really test some of these innovative fueling technologies, and that’s inevitably going to impact and trickle down to general aviation as well. And it makes it a more environmentally friendly, a more sustainable mode of transportation as well.
Bernie Fette (20:48):
And we’ve seen, I think, just in the news lately, some stories about some of those test flights for large aircraft powered exclusively by electricity, right?
Jeff Borowiec (20:58):
We’re certainly seeing more and more electric, larger electric aircraft coming on, yeah. And when Jim talks about sustainable aviation fields, this is in the context of, you know, general aviation. It uses a lot of 100 low-lead fuel. So it remains the only, I think, widely produced leaded fuel out there today. And so there’s a big need to replace it. And so we’re starting to see a lot of progress on those fields that Jim mentioned, and we’re starting to see bigger and bigger electric aircraft coming. So just like on the surface side, you know, we have issues with battery power capabilities. We, we see that in aviation too, but, but it’s coming,
Bernie Fette (21:37):
What have I not asked you about that you would like to talk about?
Jeff Borowiec (21:41):
One thing that comes to mind to me is, you know, commercial space, Texas has how many Jim? Four, three, four?
Jim Halley (21:48):
Licensed space ports?
Jeff Borowiec (21:49):
Jim Halley (21:50):
Yeah. Probably four.
Jeff Borowiec (21:50):
Four. Yeah. And so when we talk about commercial space, we’re not just talking about vertical launch facilities and, you know, rockets, we’re talking about, you know, aircraft that can be launched horizontally, like on a runway. And we may be able to see some aircraft,
Bernie Fette (22:05):
Uh, you mean launching space craft the way that the space shuttle lands.
Jeff Borowiec (22:09):
Right. Like an airplane taking off. Yeah. And maybe getting into some, you know, lower level orbit and able to travel across the world in record time. So I think those things are on the horizon, so to speak.
Bernie Fette (22:22):
Those are things that could be happening in Texas?
Jeff Borowiec (22:25):
Well, I, I think so. I mean, we have a big commercial space presence in the state with SpaceX, with facilities in several places, we have a handful of licensed space ports. And so I would expect that we would see it from our state.
Bernie Fette (22:38):
The interest and the enthusiasm that both of you seem to have for your work is pretty noticeable. Where does that come from for each of you? What is it that makes you excited to come to work every day?
Jeff Borowiec (22:49):
Well, I mean, it’s a couple things for me. There’s the people that I work with, but the topic is something that for me is just infectious. And I think, you know, you hear this cliche story of kids and airplanes, and we always kind of refer to it as, um, catching the bug, you know, but once you get interested and involved in aviation, there’s just nothing like it. So for me, not only is it, uh, interesting and exciting, but it draws other interesting and passionate people. So in a way, it, it is very much infectious to be around others who share that same view. And so it, it just, that makes it a lot more fun to work in and allows you to be more productive, I would say for sure.
Jim Halley (23:28):
And I would say aside from the fact that I just think planes are cool. I think it’s, I mean, it’s a, a chunk of metal flying through the air. Somebody figured that out over a hundred years ago and they’ve continued to improve upon the original design, is pretty impressive. And the effect that you can fly for 15, 16, 17 hours halfway around the globe is definitely still to me, a very crazy notion, but specifically on a day-to-day, it’s everybody I get to work with. Our hundreds of airport managers, whether they’re somebody who has a master’s degree in airport management and every airport-related letter after the name that you can imagine, or if it’s somebody who’s seventh job for the city or the county is also the airport. In addition to the six other jobs they have. And everything in between, everyone has a different perspective on their individual airport and what it means to their community, what it means to their city or their county and how it fits into our system. And getting to work with those airport managers. And even those non-aviation local stakeholders, whether it’s residents, businesses, elected officials, city, and county staff, and understanding why the airport is important to them, what it means to them and how we as a state can help them achieve their local goal, their local dream of what the airport is. And then also hearing some of those unique stories, whether it’s disaster response, it’s an amazing fix of an aircraft of the world’s most popular commercial aircraft at a, at a military joint-use facility, or just the, the day-to-day operations, seeing critical flights come in, carrying organs — organ transplant is another big part of aeromedical. The fires that we’ve experienced recently and frequently and, and seeing how aviation factors into that and how that individual airport manager becomes one of the most critical pieces of that puzzle is really what gets me out of bed. What excites me is we can help these people be on the frontline of all the great things that general aviation does.
Bernie Fette (25:38):
Jim Halley from the Texas Department of Transportation and Jeff Borowiec from TTI. Gentlemen, thank you both for sharing your time.
Jim Halley (25:46):
Thank you for having us. We appreciate it.
Jeff Borowiec (25:48):
Thanks, Bernie. Appreciate it.
Bernie Fette (25:51):
General aviation is one of the more well-hidden secrets in Texas. And though it’s presence may not be widely known, its benefits are clearly apparent in every corner of our state. And as our guest would say, it sustains who we are, what we are, and what we’re able to accomplish. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Thinking Transportation. And please join us again next time, when our conversation with Bahar Dadashova and Joan Hudson will focus on the safety and other aspects of bicycling, whether it’s for recreation or a routine daily transportation option. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas, A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.