Every airport that accepts federal grant money must agree to meet a set of standards and regulations. These standards are called Grant Assurances, and they cover a range of safety, operational, and financial matters. Of course, they’re not the only rules that airports must follow. There are many federal regulations that ensure uniform safety and operational standards at airports across the country.
The Flightpath team was recently asked which Grant Assurance says that Heber City can’t choose the types of planes that can use the airport. Why can’t we just prevent the larger, faster C-II aircraft from landing here?
While the quick answer is Grant Assurance 22 – Economic Nondiscrimination, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. In fact, the full text of Grant Assurance 22 seems contradictory: if section a. says the city can’t discriminate by aircraft type, section i. implies that it can. Here’s a deep dive into precisely when Heber City can and can’t prevent aircraft from using Heber Valley Airport.
There are two places to look for FAA guidance on this issue. The first is the Grant Assurances themselves, available here. The FAA also publishes a document that describes in detail the practical application and meaning of the Grant Assurances. This document is FAA Order 5190.6, FAA Airport Compliance Manual, and can be found here.
Three sections under Grant Assurance 22 define an airport sponsor’s ability to create limitations: 22.a., 22.h. and 22.i. These are quoted below:
- [The airport sponsor] will 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.
- The sponsor may establish such reasonable, and not unjustly discriminatory, conditions to be met by all users of the airport as may be necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the airport.
- The sponsor may prohibit or limit any given type, kind or class of aeronautical use of the airport if such action is necessary for the safe operation of the airport or necessary to serve the civil aviation needs of the public.
Grant Assurance 22.a. is straightforward: the airport must be made available for public use without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical activities.
Grant Assurance 22.h. permits the airport sponsor to establish conditions that must be met by users of the airport. These conditions (often referred to as “Minimum Standards”) include things like insurance requirements or meeting fire code, that are required of all hangar owners, fixed-base operators, and others who use the airport. They do not pertain to limiting access to the airport by pilots or certain types of aeronautical users.
Grant Assurance 22.i. does allow the airport sponsor to establish conditions and limitations on operations at the airport, in a limited way. For specifics, sponsors must look to the Airport Compliance Manual.
Chapter 14 of the Airport Compliance Manual provides further explanation on this Grant Assurance. The types of limitations that have been approved by the FAA include limiting or prohibiting activities such as skydiving, soaring, banner towing, and agricultural operations that conflict with fixed-wing operations. The key determination relevant here is 14.4.d.(2).(c)., which specifically states that a ban on certain categories of operator defined solely by aircraft design group is not a justifiable limitation.
(2). Examples of restrictions which the FAA has found were not justified for safety or efficiency under Grant Assurance 22(i) have included:
(c). A ban on certain categories of aircraft, based on safety, where the banned categories of operator were defined solely by aircraft design group, which is an airport planning and design criterion based on approach speed for each aircraft type.
This means Heber City is unable to prohibit C-II aircraft from using the airport.
So when can an airport sponsor limit activity under Grant Assurance 22.i.? The FAA Airport Compliance Manual allows the sponsor to limit operations for one reason: pavement strength. Grant Assurance 19 – Operation and Maintenance, requires the airport sponsor to maintain and operate the airport so that it can be used safely. If operations are completely unlimited at an airport, aircraft heavier the airport’s pavement capacity could use the facility and make compliance with Grant Assurance 19 impossible, as the pavement would fail prematurely. For this reason, the FAA Airport Compliance Manual outlines a procedure for sponsors to limit operations by weight. This can limit overall operations as well, because heavier aircraft are generally larger. All airports have published pavement capacities, and operations that exceed these published strengths are not permitted without permission from the airport.
Think of the airport like a highway: communities have little ability to control traffic on highways, except if a truck’s weight were to cause a bridge to fail, they can prohibit that truck from using the bridge. They can’t prohibit sports cars or big rigs or any automobile that can safely use the highway. Airports are equally open to the planes that want to use them.
In summary, Grant Assurance 22 states that airports receiving funds from the FAA must be available for public use. The FAA has ultimate decision-making authority and the FAA Airport Compliance Manual specifically states that a ban on aircraft based on design group is not justified. While an airport can limit operations based on pavement strength, the airport’s pavement will support many C-II aircraft, and so Heber City can’t prevent them from using Heber Valley Airport.