Episode Preview with TTI's Jacki Kuzio (audio, 28s):
Full Episode (audio):
April 27, 2023Episode 56. Hidden Treasures: Remote community airports play an essential role in Texas life.
FEATURING: Jacki Kuzio
The value that small general aviation airports deliver far exceeds what their modest size might suggest. To many local government officials, those facilities represent “the most valuable mile of pavement in the county.”
About Our Guest
Assistant Research Scientist
Jacki Kuzio has worked in TTI’s Infrastructure Investment Analysis Program for the past seven years and has worked on a variety of projects ranging from economic impact studies on various transportation modes to supporting the Texas Transportation Commission’s Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee. In 2021, she completed her Ph.D., which focused on transportation technology investment and how those investments can be equitable and just. Her current research at TTI focuses on electric vehicle planning and the impacts to transportation revenue as well as funding challenges across the modes.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again, and welcome to 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. The typical general aviation airport anywhere in America may have just a single airstrip and a terminal that’s not much bigger than the average three-bedroom house. But the role that these facilities play is far more substantial than their modest size might imply. Battling wildfires, transporting patients for medical care, treating thousands of acres of farm crops. All of these efforts require small agile aircraft, and those aircraft need readily accessible infrastructure to enable their missions. In this episode of Thinking Transportation, we take a close look at the small out-of-the-way airports that comprise that infrastructure, with the help of Jacki Kuzio, an assistant research scientist and general aviation expert at TTI. Welcome Jacki, and thank you for sharing your time with us.
Jacki Kuzio (guest) (01:29):
Thank you for inviting me.
Bernie Fette (01:31):
For a lot of people, a lot of our listeners, if you say airport, they’re likely to think first of the facilities where the big commercial airlines help us go on vacation. They wouldn’t necessarily think about the somewhat lesser known airports that you study, the ones that serve small population centers throughout the United States. In Texas alone, I think we have something around 300, maybe more than 300 of them. More than we have counties. Perhaps we could begin with you telling us from your mindset about the purpose of those smaller airports and why they’re important.
Jacki Kuzio (02:11):
Yes, absolutely. So as you say, we often just think about those larger air airports that we travel, um, into and out of, but general aviation airports, or GA as we call them. So a huge role in the state and that’s a variety of different things that they do, including kind of aeromedical. So especially in some of the rural parts of the state, if you need to be evacuated to a hospital, a lot of GA airports can help with that by providing the infrastructure. I think we’re seeing an increase in it for, you know, firefighting purposes as well, especially with wildfires, but also flight schools, flight instruction. A lot of people get their start in GA, in general aviation. If you wanna learn to fly — you wanna learn to be a pilot — that’s why you can get your start. And so as you say, there’s kind of a lot of facilities, just less than 300 in the Texas airport system that are publicly funded, but a lot more that are private as well, that are part of general aviation as a whole.
Bernie Fette (03:06):
And you mentioned emergency services. I think that there are stories from the pandemic that helped to illustrate, didn’t general aviation airports play kind of a central role in helping to distribute medical supplies, vaccines and such?
Jacki Kuzio (03:20):
Yes. So not just vaccines but also testing, and also moving people between hospitals depending on their conditions. So we saw that kind of shift as a lot more people were maybe buying goods online and maybe not flying, we saw more of the truck traffic on the roads, but if you need something quickly, a lot of that would go through flights and therefore GA airports because they are often located in communities and across the U.S. in small communities as well. And so that kind of gives you that direct access that you would maybe be needing during the pandemic.
Bernie Fette (03:52):
Well, in a lot of those smaller communities that have the small airports also have smaller hospitals and so the supply chain assistance there was kind of important as well, right?
Jacki Kuzio (04:02):
Yes, absolutely. So rural healthcare is a huge issue and access to it is. And so I think that you kind of don’t think about these airports being that critical link in times of need, but they definitely are. They definitely play that role in terms of being medical service and medical transportation.
Bernie Fette (04:18):
Can you go into just a little bit about the economy, the economic benefit here? Because I understand that GA airports really create and sustain quite a few jobs across the state.
Jacki Kuzio (04:30):
Yes, absolutely. And it’s not just the services that I’ve been talking about, but also obviously on the airports we have a great need for mechanics but also a number of flight schools as I was mentioning. So instruction for that provides jobs as well, as well as ag operations. So there is quite obviously, you know, Texas is a big agricultural state and so general aviation airports play a role in being able to help with crop spraying through aerial applications as well, all of which supports jobs all across Texas.
Bernie Fette (05:00):
And I think that you’ve just recently returned from the Texas Department of Transportation’s Annual Aviation Conference.
Jacki Kuzio (05:08):
Yes, I have.
Bernie Fette (05:09):
What was high on the agenda there? Maybe you could just list the major topics first and then we can go into some detail about each one.
Jacki Kuzio (05:19):
Yes, absolutely. So I would say top of mind for a lot of airports and you know, a lot of us in transportation is funding, so there was a good conversation about funding and another one was aviation education and workforce development. So what we were just talking about in terms of economic impacts and then emerging technologies, which not just for advanced air mobility, AAM, urban air mobility, UAM kinda applications, but also fuel, there’s a lot of changes in terms of fuel, especially in general aviation. So that was a big topic as well.
Bernie Fette (05:51):
So funding, can you talk a little bit more about that, especially the difference. I’m sure you were probably going to cover this anyway, but maybe include the distinction in how these smaller airports are funded versus the much bigger ones that we mentioned earlier.
Jacki Kuzio (06:05):
Yes. So obviously not being commercial service, they don’t have passenger fees that help and they don’t often have airlines associated with the airports that are gonna help with the funding. So a lot of this does come from both the federal and the state level. So those airports in the Texas airport system are gonna have access to state level support as well as funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA. But as we said, there’s a lot of airports and there’s a limited amount of funding. And so that’s gonna cause concern not just at the state level but also the federal level. And so we were very lucky to have Congressman Graves at the conference and he is the head of the House Transportation Committee and right now the FAA reauthorization bill is up and what they’re wanting to do is add in a general aviation title for the first time. And so this would help to increase funding for GA under a couple of programs. And we have the money to do it from aviation fuel taxes right now. And so they’re really hoping to increase the airport improvement program, the AIP, to get some more funding to these smaller airports.
Bernie Fette (07:08):
And what are the big needs there? Is it just resurfacing runways? I’m curious about what these smaller airports need to continue to remain viable.
Jacki Kuzio (07:18):
Yes, so a lot of it is pavement condition, so resurfacing of runways, sometimes expansion as well. Some airports need to change things as they get bigger to keep up with the FAA criteria. So they have kind of strict standards for airports but also hangers. So we need a lot more space at airports. And so I think there’s a lot of interest in space on air airports, especially to store more aircraft and we’re just hitting up on limits of space and size at some of these smaller airports and they really need funding to be able to build new hangers or maybe change some of the space that they have to be able to spot this growth.
Bernie Fette (07:55):
It sounds very similar to the surface transportation needs that we have. Is that a fair assumption there?
Jacki Kuzio (08:03):
Yeah, especially on the pavement side, there’s always gonna be maintenance needs that are often harder to meet, I would say, than trying to build something new. And I think that with GA there is also the idea that we can make bigger connections than maybe some of the surface transportation projects and all of which is vital, though.
Bernie Fette (08:24):
So if you have population growth, you’re not going to be able to accommodate that growth without expansion in general aviation as well as we might for streets and highways for instance.
Jacki Kuzio (08:36):
Yes. And we are very lucky to have as the keynote speaker, the Texas State Demographer, Dr. Potter, and he talked a lot about the different migration patterns that we’re seeing across the state. So how we’re seeing domestic migration, so people from elsewhere in the U.S. moving to Texas and since the pandemic, we’ve also seen an uptick in international immigration to Texas as well, which kind of saw a little bit of a dip, all of which is gonna require us to grow our airports to meet these needs. And I think this is especially true in, you know, what we call a Texas triangle. So between Austin, San Antonio, DFW, and then Houston, a lot of growth is happening in there and, and not just in the urban core, but also in kind of those surrounding counties, which is maybe where we’re gonna see the need more for GA airports as well.
Bernie Fette (09:23):
When you heard what the state demographer had to say, what surprised you the most from the perspective that you work in?
Jacki Kuzio (09:32):
Oh, that’s a good question. So I think that some of the most surprising statistics they brought up was actually the amount of people that moved out of some counties. So we’re having a lot of movement within Texas as well. And although you see this huge out-migration from people based in Texas, we’re getting so many people from outside moving in that it’s still net growth. And so I do think that that speaks to maybe some of the shifting demographics that we’re gonna see in the state shifting needs. And I think over the next few years we’re gonna have to pay a lot of attention to where we’re seeing some of that growth and also where we’re seeing some population loss in our rural counties and what does that mean for them as well, especially with the issues that we were talking about already about access to certain services, transportation, healthcare, as your population declines. I think those issues are exacerbated as well because you’re more likely to lose those critical services.
Bernie Fette (10:26):
Really important to remember because I think that, or at least for me, when we talk about Texas growing as fast as it is, I think some people might think that it’s growing everywhere. And that’s really not the case from what I hear you saying.
Jacki Kuzio (10:40):
No, no, not at all. And so as I said, a lot of the growth that we’re seeing is in the urban areas as you would expect, but also in some of those counties that are around the urban area as well. But then in some more rural parts of our state, we are seeing population loss, and one of the things that Dr. Potter talked about was, well, there isn’t the access to higher education in those counties. And so kids grow up and basically they don’t have a choice to stay within that county if they want to go into higher education, so they move out. That’s one of the trends that we think we’re seeing in terms of the migration across access. Mm-hmm.
Bernie Fette (11:15):
<affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Aviation education and workforce development. You said also high on the agenda. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Jacki Kuzio (11:24):
Yes. So we had a really great session at the conference on aviation education and a lot of it was focused on what we’re doing right now to try and get kids interested in aviation careers. And I think, especially from my perspective of somebody that didn’t really think about aviation probably until I was already in graduate school, it’s really cool to see that we’re having these opportunities at as young an age as five and six from the FAA, they have an airport design challenge that they now use Minecraft for. So they’re getting kids to build airports in Minecraft essentially. And so it’s really cool to see kind of that engagement and the amount of engagement they’re getting. But also on more of the technical side, we had a high school teacher who is teaching an aerospace curriculum developed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, so that’s AOPA. And so he is getting his kid to get their pilot certificates, and that’s for, you know, your traditional planes, but also the Part 107 for drones and getting them into those two types of training, which I think is gonna be a big need in the future. But in addition, they’re building a plane, which just kind of sounds crazy when you say it, but it’s a really cool project that they’re getting to do.
Bernie Fette (12:28):
They’re building a plane.
Jacki Kuzio (12:31):
Yes. So there’s a company called Tango Flight, I think, that they’re partnering with and they provide all the parts for the plane, but the kids and the teacher are putting it together. And that hands-on experience is fantastic for kids at that level.
Bernie Fette (12:44):
And how old are these students?
Jacki Kuzio (12:47):
They’re in high school, so I would say Okay. You know, 14 to 18. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (12:50):
Okay. So they’re high school students and they’re building an airplane. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I’m sorry, that’s
Jacki Kuzio (12:57):
One <laugh> small one.
Bernie Fette (12:57):
Okay. Well it’s still a little surprising to me. It sounds like a kind of a big deal. I was, I was wondering is it going to fly?
Jacki Kuzio (13:05):
Yes, yes. So the idea where the program is that eventually it gets built and sold. And so the investment that the high school put into starting the program, they get back through the sale of the plane eventually. And so that’s something that I would never have expected to hear about. And so I think it was really cool to hear about this program and the curriculums because again, as I said, there’s also ones for, you know, pilots, but I do think that there is a lot of opportunity in aviation education that we need to be taking advantage of in Texas.
Bernie Fette (13:33):
And where is this high school program?
Jacki Kuzio (13:36):
It’s in the Houston area, but I’d have to give back to you on the exact name of the high school.
Bernie Fette (13:41):
Yeah, that’s okay. The Houston area. It just, it’s really striking to me. I grew up in a very small town about six miles from one of the airports that you’ve been talking about, and it’s been quite a few years, but I could hardly have imagined such an opportunity that high school students would have to actually build an airplane. That’s pretty fascinating.
Jacki Kuzio (14:02):
Yeah, it really is.
Bernie Fette (14:05):
So what else did you walk away from the conference with about workforce development? So you got high school kids building an airplane and you’re at least aware of some of the pilot training education. What’s the future for general aviation in terms of workforce development?
Jacki Kuzio (14:23):
Well, I think we’re, and I think we’re seeing this across the board in terms of job openings that are not being filled. I’m sure a lot of people have heard about pilot shortages and a lot of that really starts at the general aviation level. So a lot of the talk at the conferences, people get their start in general aviation, even if they go on to be a commercial service pilot that’s maybe unless they’ve been trained through the military, that’s often where they learn to fly. And so not just having enough flight instructors and flight schools, but also mechanics to work on these aircraft. So they’re becoming more expensive. And so a lot of people are trying to keep their used ones and keep them in good shape, but a lot of people are struggling to get the staff to be able to work on them. And as we think about new and emerging technologies as well, I just think that that’s gonna be exacerbated.
Bernie Fette (15:06):
Exacerbated because the technologies are advancing and we aren’t getting enough pilots and other professionals in the pipeline to keep up with that?
Jacki Kuzio (15:15):
Yeah, and I think mostly from kind of like the maintenance side of it is what we’re hearing. And it’s not just in aviation, but I think we have this conversation with electric vehicles as well and it’s like, okay, do we have like the mechanics to work on these? The same thing is gonna happen when we talk about, you know, electric aircraft or even hydrogen aircraft. It’s an entire new, you know, skillset for a lot of people. And so are we really preparing people for that new workforce? And so I think over the next five to 10 years we may start seeing the need for additional skills and we need to start preparing now probably at some of the high school higher education levels to be able to meet that demand.
Bernie Fette (15:53):
Okay. You just mentioned hydrogen powered aircraft, so I’m thinking maybe you just gave yourself a perfect segue for the third thing that you were going to talk about, which I think is emerging technologies.
Jacki Kuzio (16:04):
Yes. So we did have somebody talk specifically about they’re trying to build hydrogen powered aircraft. And with that they’re also talking about the infrastructure requirements. I think that’s what’s really important for airports. It’s not necessarily the aircraft itself and what it’s powered with. It’s like, okay, but do we have the power source on our airport? And I think with electric aircraft we’d have that issue. It’s that a lot of airports currently are not set up for powering and electric aircraft and not even set up for powering electric vehicles a lot of the time. Um, so that’s gonna be a huge shift.
Bernie Fette (16:36):
So the airports have their issues about charging infrastructure just as we do for electric cars.
Jacki Kuzio (16:42):
Yeah, and I think especially the larger airports are really trying to grapple with this right now is how much do we need? What do we need to be prepared for? But when we start talking about hydrogen, that’s also another fuel source. And so that presentation specifically talked about having a hydrogen farm on the airport to be able to power your aircraft. But this is also a good place that GA can maybe play a role, especially ones that have a little bit more space. Because if we’re thinking about maybe some of these shorter flights, and I think that’s where a lot of these new fuels are probably gonna start. They’re not gonna be doing your long haul flights, then having them be able to take off and land from a GA airport and having that as a regional connection is gonna be really useful. And especially because as I say, like space is gonna be a requirement and a lot of the larger airports just don’t have the space maybe to accommodate this initially until we maybe right-size some of this. And so we did have a speaker that talked about how a lot of these new technologies are probably gonna want to test at general aviation airports rather than building their own infrastructure. So when we talk about Evtol like electric vehicle take off and landing aircraft and even short take off and landing, which would require a runway, I think a lot of this could have its start in GA.
Bernie Fette (17:54):
How far are we from aircraft powered electrically and by hydrogen?
Jacki Kuzio (18:02):
<laugh>? That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer to that.
Bernie Fette (18:06):
<laugh>, Did they share any projections about that?
Jacki Kuzio (18:07):
Well, it depends I guess in terms of, you know, like the first test flights, we’re already seeing some of that on the electric side and I imagine we’ll start to see some more soon in terms of hydrogen. But if we’re talking about you and I taking one of those flights, I’m not sure. I don’t think it’ll be at least in the next, you know, five years or so that we would see that.
Bernie Fette (18:30):
Okay. Please continue. I think you were talking about Evtol — electric vehicle takeoff landing, that’s one of the other areas that I think you’re studying.
Jacki Kuzio (18:40):
So I was lucky to be able to help out with the Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee and some of the work they did. And that’s trying to hopefully best position Texas, um, for introducing some of these new technologies. But a lot of that does revolve around the conversation of, you know, electric, how do we make aviation more sustainable? I think the, the fuel conversation is important right now and is gonna become a lot more important as we try and reduce our environmental impact and emissions across the board in transportation.
Bernie Fette (19:08):
And the urban air mobility topic that you mentioned — as I recall, the Texas Legislature has actually passed legislation, was it maybe one session ago? I think that helped to position the state for some of these technological advancements and some of the work that needs to happen for urban air mobility to actually to be realized.
Jacki Kuzio (19:31):
Yes. So through legislation, they established the Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee and TTI supported that effort as well as helping with a report and recommendations that went to the Legislature at the end of last year. And so that’s working its way through the session right now, and there may be modicum on UAM and AM. And then a future
Bernie Fette (19:52):
Part of what I’m hearing you say, if I understand correctly, is that these types of technological advances with regard to aviation, the urban air mobility, what some people call flying taxis, are not just about technology. They require certain policy considerations for them to actually become reality. Am I reading that correctly?
Jacki Kuzio (20:21):
Yes, and I think that obviously as a state, Texas wants to invite this, but there is some considerations that we have to have in terms of how this fits into our current system, especially when we’re thinking about airspace. But also at the local level, there is essentially a lot of considerations on noise impact. Yes. How it fits in with the community where they’re not gonna be flying at the same altitude as we’re used to. So they’re often gonna be flying a lot lower, generally we say below 400 feet. And so we’re more likely to be able to see them interact with them, they’re gonna be a bigger part of our communities. And so I do think that public opinion is gonna become more important and we’re gonna have to have a greater consideration of what are acceptable levels of noise and kind of environmental pollution in terms of not the traditional environmental pollution, but kind of in terms of what we see in our skies. And aviation safety is always paramount. And so that’s gonna be the guiding force behind any policy and regulation that relates to these new technologies.
Bernie Fette (21:18):
Thank you. You did a marvelous job of producing a very clear answer to a question that I think I was asking in a not very clear manner. So thank you for explaining that.
Jacki Kuzio (21:29):
Oh, no problem.
Bernie Fette (21:29):
I knew that there were issues in terms of safety and elevation, but I was not sure how best to pose that question to you. So thank you for that. Let’s talk a little bit about research. I’m curious about a couple of things. One, the latest studies that you and your colleagues have been doing, and also what you believe are the most pressing research needs going forward in this area.
Jacki Kuzio (21:53):
Yeah, there are some great questions. So the last thing we did was the UAM report. So we’ve been keeping an eye on the development and we’re hoping to get some more research going soon. But I think in terms of what is needed, research questions that we should be asking, I think security as well as safety. And I think those are tied together. And when you’re thinking about cybersecurity, a lot of people’s perception on safety is gonna be how resilient these technologies are to be able to be secure from an attack. And I think the more technology we put in things, the riskier it becomes in terms of cybersecurity and especially when we’re thinking about drones that are carrying packages, kind of like having a backup so that we don’t kind of have some of maybe the safety issues that could occur. But also, and this is kind of again along the lines of safety, is how we separate airspace to be able to accommodate all of these different use cases and modes.
Jacki Kuzio (22:47):
And I think right now we have a very safe system, but when we introduce all of these new technologies, we have to be careful about that change. And then what additional considerations does automation bring? And so with the drone delivery, a lot of it is kind of, it’s unmanned, it’s automated, and so what do we have to be watching out for there, but also how does that then scale up to passenger travel? And when you don’t have a pilot in there, I think there is a lot of a conversation about it’s not gonna be see and avoid anymore. It’s sense and avoid. And so some of those technologies are gonna need to be put in place. And then I think more on what we do is a lot in terms of what are the local regulations that you need in place? What are the funding models that can work for this type of infrastructure as well? Do we want to try and retrofit existing infrastructure to meet the needs of this new technology? Or would new infrastructure be the best solution? And yet how we integrate these into communities.
Bernie Fette (23:49):
As we’re starting to wrap up our conversation, maybe you’d like to circle back for the big takeaway, if there was just one thing that you would hope that people remember from the conversation you and I have just had, what is it that you would hope that they would remember? Maybe this is your elevator speech.
Jacki Kuzio (24:09):
Yeah, so I guess I would say that there is, there’s a lot going on in aviation and there is a lot of different opportunities right now. I think it’s a fascinating space to be working in. And as with a lot of transportation right now, we are dealing with a lot of emerging challenges that are gonna need a lot of people to help deal with. And so I think one of the major takeaways from, you know, the conference and what I see in our research is making sure that we’re preparing the workforce of tomorrow. And I think that really does start with education. And that was why it was so great to hear about the ongoing efforts and hoping that we can get back tomorrow of Texas. It was good to hear that some rural communities are benefiting from these curriculums, but I do think that in the future we’re gonna need to make sure we’re developing the workforce already, that we need to be able to support these technologies. And so I think that’s probably my biggest takeaway is that there is a lot of opportunities and I’m hoping that people wanna get involved.
Bernie Fette (25:06):
You’ve been researcher at T T I for several years now. Yes. Started in what year?
Jacki Kuzio (25:13):
Bernie Fette (25:14):
2016. So what is it that motivates you to show up to work every day?
Jacki Kuzio (25:21):
So I would have to say it is the people that I work with. I have a great team here at TTI and everyone that I’ve worked with has been fantastic, but also I do think it’s a really exciting time to be working in transportation research. I think we have a lot of challenges, a lot of opportunities. And so I think it’s good to get to work on a variety of different problems. And from my perspective in infrastructure investment, we get to see stuff across all the modes, which keeps it interesting. It’s always a new problem.
Bernie Fette (25:49):
We’ve been visiting with Jacki Kuzio, an assistant research scientist and general aviation expert at TTI. Jacki, this has really been enlightening. Thank you so much for sharing your work and for sharing your insight with us.
Jacki Kuzio (26:04):
Thank you, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (26:08):
Texas has more general aviation airports than it has counties. The services they provide and the jobs that they support make them indispensable — not only to the communities and rural areas that they serve, but also to the broader population of Texas. That’s why local government officials often refer to their general aviation airport as “the most valuable mile of pavement in the county.” Thanks for listening once again. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe, and share this episode. And please join us for our next show when we visit with Bernie Wagenblast, a veteran storyteller with more than four decades of reporting on every mode of transportation, through words both written and spoken. 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.