EDITORIAL: Is airport safety worth the price?

ANYONE WHO HAS TRAVELLED frequently by air knows that regardless of all the inconveniences inflicted on commercial flight passengers, a major airline is the safest way ever devised to move large numbers of people. Statistically speaking, you’re less at risk in the air than hiding underneath your bed.

Small, private planes are another matter, although they too are generally quite safe. I used to be a frequent airline flier, but the only nail biter I ever had aloft was in a single engine plane a short time after takeoff a few hundred feet in the air. The pilot said something like “That’s not good….” The propeller was slowing down, regaining speed and stopping now and then, one blade straight up.

The pilot, a friend of mine, banked hard and guided the plane back toward the runway. The motor was coughing. I could see a long, wide concrete strip out ahead. It looked so welcoming, especially the yellow emergency truck that swung into position on the apron. I thought: Hey, what a cool adventure. Then I looked down. A mistake.

No runway. Instead there was a swamp where there once had been woods. Leafless trees pointed straight up like so many spears. “Are we going to make it?” I asked. No answer. I asked again just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood the question.

We did make it thanks to his skill and perhaps some luck. Maybe this incident, over a decade ago elsewhere in the state, helps explain why a proposal to expand the “safety zone” around the Columbia County Airport in West Ghent sounds like a great idea to me.

Some county officials believe a larger safety zone will make it possible to expand the airport, and there’s a 2011 consultant’s report that suggests the county spend between $8- and $13 million on expanding airport facilities to increase traffic and boost revenues. This sounds like infrastructure that government should finance as a way to help stimulate the local economy.

To cap it off, the officials say that not expanding the safety zone might cause the Federal Aviation Administration to insist the county shorten the runway. This would negatively affect Richmor Aviation, the company that runs the airport and has a base here for its extensive aviation services.
The most obvious sour note in the plan is the call for use of the county’s power of eminent domain to take property needed for the zone.

Government must sometimes exercise this authority, but it is a power so threatening to personal liberty that the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights explicitly forbids government taking private property for public purposes without “just compensation.” It’s a power best left unused except in extreme cases.

And once you ask how the public will benefit from this particular seizure of private property, other questions arise, more than a dozen of them judging from a list compiled by Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin (D). Mr. Bassin has compiled his own misgivings along with the concerns of fellow supervisors ahead of a county Board of Supervisors’ vote October 9 on whether to authorize the taking of land near the runway by eminent domain.

For example, Mr. Bassin cites a letter from the FAA, which says nothing about having to shorten the runway if the county doesn’t expand the safety zone. Wouldn’t it be good to know what the FAA will do before county government takes land that belongs to one of our neighbors?

Trouble is, you won’t get a response from the FAA right now, because the regulators who could answer the question are locked out of their jobs by the reckless federal government shutdown foisted on us by leaders of the House of Representatives. By the same token, the shutdown means there is no rush to resolve this issue hastily because the FAA can’t even consider the county’s plans until the shutdown ends.

Safety is not the only issue raised by Mr. Bassin and his colleagues. Some supervisors are skeptical of revenue projections for an expanded airport at a time when the county was recently forced to borrow nearly $13 million to pay its bills. Their concerns are well placed.

We all want to ensure the safety of air traffic at the county airport, but the need for an eminent domain proceeding now is a manufactured deadline for a project that cries out for more thorough study. The board should heed Mr. Bassin’s prudent advice and table the eminent domain motion at its October 9 meeting.

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