Here are ten facts about the Heber City Russ McDonald Airport to better understand the future of the local airport:
Originally Posted By Mike Johnston, Heber City Council - October 25, 2022
1. The Heber City (HC) Airport is an FAA-obligated public general-aviation airport. Heber City absolutely cannot limit or restrict which general aviation planes use the airport or when they use the airport. The pilot is only limited by the runway length (currently 6900 feet) and runway pavement capacity (89,000 lbs. single wheel and 142,500 lbs. dual wheel.)
2. The HC Airport is (and likely always will be) a general aviation airport for private airplane service, which includes business aviation. It is not a commercial airport. It is illegal for any commercial scheduled airline service to use this airport. It is not a feeder airport; it does not feed passengers and planes to hub airports. It is not a commuter airport.
3. Since 1946, the CAA and later the FAA partnered with Heber City to serve the aviation community. In 1949, the CAA issued Heber City the first grant to purchase land for the airport. Since 1986, Airport Improvement Funds from the FAA have supported the HC Airport, including 26 grants for airport development, 12 of which include land acquisition.
4. When Heber City receives a grant from the FAA, it acknowledges and accepts a binding contract which includes grant assurances that the city will run and maintain the airport according to FAA requirements and safety standards for 20 more years. When federal funds are used to purchase land, there is no expiration of the term associated with the grant assurances - the contractual commitments continue in perpetuity.
5. Heber City Council is not planning to expand the airport. Heber City is not obligated to enlarge the airport footprint, is not obligated to lengthen the runway, is not obligated to increase the runway thickness, and is not obligated to build or improve facilities to provide more capacity or attract/encourage growth. Heber City is also not obligated to accept commercial scheduled airline service, and is not obligated to build a tower.
6. Heber City Council doesn't decide if the Airport Reference Code (ARC) is B-2 or C-2. The current airport layout meets B-2 safety standards, but the number of C-class planes that regularly use the airport far exceeds the limit of 500 annual operations for an ARC of B-2. In 2015, there were 713 category C-or-larger flights. In 2019, there were 1,064 flights of C-or-larger. In 2021, there were 1,386 C-or-larger fights. Because of these numbers, in July of 2021, the FAA confirmed that the Heber City Russ McDonald Airport is an ARC C-2 airport.
7. The projected annual growth rate for general aviation at the HC Airport increases from 12,605 total operations (take-off or landing) in 2021 to 16,320 total operations in 2041. The C-or-larger operations are forecast to increase from 1,386 in 2021 to 1,795 in 2041. The 2022 airport study shows the HC Airport is currently an ARC C-2 facility and it will remain a C-2 facility for at least the next 20 years, whether we upgrade the runway width and clear zones or not.
8. Heber City Council doesn't get to vote or choose to keep the Airport as a B-2 instead of C-2. The Airport Reference Code is solely determined by the number and category of planes using the airport, which Heber City Council does not have a say or get to limit. Similarly, Heber City Council doesn't decide if the high school stays 3A or not or if big semi-trucks can drive along Heber Main Street.
9. Heber City currently does not use taxes to fund the HC Airport. The daily airport operations are fully funded by landing fees, fuel fees, land leases, hanger leases, FBO leases, and FAA annual payments as revenue to the Airport Fund. For facilities, infrastructure repairs, land purchases, equipment, and capital improvements, those are funded 90% by the FAA, 5% by UDOT, and 5% by the Airport Fund.
10. A public FAA-obligated airport must meet FAA standards for the planes that regularly use the airport, or else have a plan in place to bring the airport up to FAA standards to avoid losing federal funding. The HC Airport falls in the second category – a large number of class C-2 planes use the airport, yet the runway width and runway safety zones at each end and on each side do not meet the FAA standards for C-2 planes. The HC Airport is legally required to address this matter or lose federal funding.
Given these facts, what are the options for the future of the airport?
Option 1: Expand the HC Airport and lengthen the runway. This is desired by the FAA, but unanimously rejected by Heber City Council.
Option 2: Do what is possible within the existing airport footprint to bring the airport facilities in conformance with FAA safety requirements for the C-2 aircraft using the airport. It may be possible to widen the runway by 25 feet and increase the open space clear zones on each side and at each end. This option is being studied over the next six months to determine the costs, environmental and noise implications, legal and easement issues, etc. If this becomes the chosen path, then the FAA and the Airport Fund will pay 100% of the costs for upgrading facilities and purchasing easements for the safety zones.
Option 3: Do nothing and make no changes at the HC Airport. This option will negate all future FAA funding of facilities, repairs, upgrades, equipment, improvements, etc., which means the costs move to the tax-paying residents of Heber City. Heber City is still required to maintain the HC Airport per FAA standards for 20 years, and Class A, B, and C planes and jets will continue daily operations. The annual cost is high, with an initial estimate of $52M over twenty years - exceeding the total property tax revenue the city will receive for the next 20 years. We anticipate this will as much as double city taxes for residents.
Option 4: Another governmental entity, such as Wasatch County, takes ownership and assumes the sponsorship of the airport for the next 20 years. This entity will have the ability to tax all county residents equally in order to fully fund the airport maintenance and repairs without the FAA funding (Heber City, Daniel, Charleston, Midway, and all county residents will equally participate in funding the HC Airport), and then work toward changing the HC Airport after the 20-year obligation of the grant assurances have expired.