The Honorable Mitt Romney
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Romney:
Thank you for your March 17 letter expressing your concerns about the future of the Heber Valley Airport. The current master plan process will address the existing and forecasted needs of the airport and ensure airport users are provided the same level of safety that is required at any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) obligated airport across the country. Below are your questions as outlined in the letter with the FAA’s response to each.
1. What specific guidance or regulation is the FAA using to make the noncompliance determination?
The current Airport Master Plan Update began in 2019. The master planning process identifies current and future design standard deficiencies as they relate to current and forecasted users of the airport. In this case, the airport has existing users that exceed the current B-II standards for which the runway is designed. Essentially, the airport was designed for small general aviation aircraft but currently is seeing significant use by larger business jet aircraft.
The FAA has outlined safety standards in Advisory Circulars (AC) that lay out the design parameters an airport must meet to be in compliance with its grant assurances; these include:
AC 150/5000-17 – “Critical Aircraft and Regular Use Determination” provides guidance on the use of critical aircraft in facility planning and design studies. “The critical aircraft is the most demanding aircraft type, or grouping of aircraft with similar characteristics, that make regular use of the airport (i.e., more than 500 annual operations).” The critical (design) aircraft sets dimensional requirements for an airport, such as the separation distance between taxiways and runways and the size of certain areas protecting the safety of aircraft operations and passengers.
AC 150/5070-6 – “Airport Master Plans,” Paragraph 805(b)(1) states that the Runway Design Code (RDC) “is used to relate critical design criteria to the operational and physical characteristics of the aircraft that will utilize a runway. Existing and future RDC classifications are determined from a review of the aviation demand forecasts and an understanding of the airport’s existing and future role in the air transportation system.”
AC 150/5300-13 – “Airport Design Standards” contains the FAA’s standards for the geometric layout of runways, taxiways, aprons, and other facilities at civil airports, many of which are determined by the critical aircraft as identified through the regular use determination.
The purpose of the master plan update is to help the airport sponsor determine how to best grow and develop their airport in order to accommodate existing and future aeronautical demand and activities. Denying public access to the airport based on aircraft classification and choosing not to upgrade airport facilities to accommodate existing traffic would be contrary to federal obligations contained in the Airport Sponsor Grant Assurances (discussed below).
2. What are the specific safety quality factors assessed in the FAA’s determination and how do those relate to the safety of travelers, crew members, aircraft, air traffic control operations, and the airport itself?
As mentioned in Question #1, the critical aircraft is determined by the most demanding aircraft type, or grouping of aircraft with similar characteristics, that makes at least 500 annual operations at the airport. In 2020, the airport had 1,332 aircraft operations that exceeded the B-II design group. Of these operations, 765 were C-II aircraft and, therefore, the airport’s critical aircraft. The remaining 567 aircraft operations were dispersed among other classifications such as B-III or C-III, neither of which reached 500 annual operations on their own.
The aviation forecast for the airport, submitted by the City and approved by the FAA on July 14, 2021, predicts 1,600 Aircraft Approach Category C operations and 6,300 Airplane Design Group II operations by 2041. This data further validates the critical aircraft to be C-II.
Existing airport geometry does not meet the dimensional standards for C-II as outlined in AC 150/5300-13 – “Airport Design Standards.” The current B-II runway is 75 feet wide, whereas a C-II runway is required to be 100 feet wide. The runway safety area (RSA), which is “a defined area surrounding the runway...suitable for reducing the risk of damage to aircraft in the event of an...excursion from the runway,” must also be improved. The existing RSA extends 300 feet beyond each runway end and is 150 feet wide, centered on the runway centerline. A C-II RSA extends 1,000 feet beyond each runway end and is 600 feet wide.
Lastly, the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) is “an area at ground level prior to the threshold or beyond the runway end to enhance the safety and protection of people and property on the ground” and is trapezoidal in shape. The RPZ increases from 1,000 feet in length to 1,700 feet. The outer width dimension also increases from 700 feet to 1,010 feet.
There are other dimensional standards that will be evaluated and addressed as part of the master planning process, but those mentioned above have been the focus of the safety-critical standards for users taking off or arriving at the airport.
3. Is the FAA aware of other, similar airport jurisdictions in full compliance that prevent larger aircrafts from landing?
There are currently other airports in the National Airspace System that do not meet all design standards relative to the existing users of the airport. The FAA is working with these airports to develop a plan to meet standards, much in the same way we are partnering with Heber Valley Airport. These airports, like Heber Valley Airport, may not limit or restrict access.
4. Does FAA guidance or regulation allow for any remedies for Heber Valley Airport to pursue that would enable the airport to prevent the larger, faster C-II aircrafts from landing?
When Heber City, as the sponsor of Heber Valley Airport, accepts Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds, it agrees to federal obligations known as Airport Sponsor Grant Assurances. The City is obligated, therefore, under federal Grant Assurance #22, Economic Nondiscrimination, to “make the airport available as an airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical activities, including commercial aeronautical activities offering services to the public at the airport.” There is not any FAA guidance or regulation that would allow the airport to prevent C-II aircraft from operating.
5. Does current FAA regulations or guidance allow an airport any flexibility to discourage larger planes from coming into the airport?
The FAA does not have any guidance or regulations that allow an airport the flexibility to discourage larger aircraft from coming to the airport. The airport must provide a safe and serviceable airfield to meet existing demand, but an airport sponsor is under no obligation to provide facilities that would attract or encourage additional growth.
6. What would the specific financial consequences be if Heber City decided not to upgrade facilities to comply with C-II safety standards?
As outlined in previous correspondence with Heber City, if they chose not to meet standards for current aviation demand, the FAA would first limit funding to non-primary entitlements to be used for maintenance projects only. If the City failed to provide an acceptable corrective action plan, the agency would pursue a formal determination of noncompliance, which would result in a loss of all FAA funding. Depending on when that decision was made, the FAA might also seek reimbursement for the current Master Plan grant.
7. At what point does an airport’s status of “noncompliance” result in a loss of federal funding?
If the airport sponsor were to be found in noncompliance with its federal obligations through the 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 16 Formal Complaint process and no corrective action was taken, the airport could be placed on the Airport Noncompliance List. Funding would then be withheld from the airport until the non-compliant issues were mitigated.
8. If applicable, what financial repercussions—other than a potential loss of FAA funding—could Heber City face if it violates its Grant Assurances?
For any open grant issued under the AIP, FAA policy requires that the project results in a useable unit of work. A grant has been issued for the master plan update, and if it is not completed with an airport layout plan that is adopted and signed by Heber City and the FAA, which reflects the current and forecasted needs, the FAA would seek reimbursement for the open grant (not retroactively). The AIP portion of the master plan is $540,030. The airport would not be eligible for future AIP funding while non-compliant. Since 1986, the airport has received $17,733,496 in AIP funding.
9. What is the maximum safety classification that Heber Valley Airport could qualify for in the future?
While there is no maximum Airport Reference Code (ARC) that the airport could qualify for, the current forecast does not show the future need to plan or protect for aircraft larger than C-II, which is the type of aircraft that currently uses the airport. The forecast was completed using unconstrained conditions. There is no reason to believe that by changing the ARC to C-II, there will be an automatic increase in larger traffic. Our position has been, and continues to be, that current and forecasted users of this facility are entitled to and should receive the same level of safety standards they receive at any FAA-obligated airport across the country.
10. What role, if any, does the safety of the surrounding area (flight/landing path) play into the decision of whether or not to expand?
If an airport were to request a new approach procedure, the surrounding terrain would be evaluated as part of the request. However, it does not factor into the decision to upgrade the airport from a B-II to C-II based on existing demand.
The FAA appreciates the opportunity to provide additional clarification on safety standards, public access requirements, and grant assurances that apply to federally-obligated airports. We will continue to partner with Heber City to develop a plan that meets the needs of the existing users and provides a safe and efficient airport.
If I can be of further assistance, please contact the FAA’s Office of Government and Industry Affairs at (202) 267-3277.
Sincerely, Billy Nolen Acting Administrator