About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak

Alaska DOT looking for input on additional aviation weather stations

More aviation weather reporting stations are needed in Alaska, and here is your opportunity to help identify where they would most benefit the aviation community.  The Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) is conducting a survey seeking input from the aviation community on weather needs.  The survey lists 21 airports across the state that have instrument approach procedures, but no on-site weather to support them.  Participants are asked to identify the top three airports from the list where weather would most benefit your flying needs.  A second question invites you to list additional airports that would benefit from establishing a certified weather reporting station.  To take the survey, download the two page questionnaire and fill it out before May 27th.

Automated weather station on the airport at New Stuyahok. We would like to see more aviation weather stations at airports in Alaska.

Automated weather station on the airport at New Stuyahok. We would like to see more aviation weather stations at airports in Alaska.

Alaska suffers from a lack of aviation-grade weather reporting stations.  A count of the FAA’s list of Surface Weather Observations (ASOS/AWOS) for Alaska lists a total of only 134 reporting stations.  That is out of a total of 1,995 stations for all 50 states.  Alaska would need close to 200 more stations to have a comparable density of stations.  And while we don’t expect to see that number of new stations, getting some additional weather reporting is important, particularly to make instrument approaches usable for pilots.   Even if you only fly VFR, weather reporting at these airports improves your ability to fly there safely, so don’t miss this opportunity weigh in!

The survey was developed as a product from the Alaska Aviation System Plan, a multi-year effort to define a “…sensible and adaptable statewide aviation system plan…” led by DOT, funded by the FAA Airport Improvement Program. To be clear, the plan does not include funding for weather stations. It does provide a mechanism to document the needs, and develop a prioritized list.  Having this information helps make the case to justify funding.  A working group was formed that brought industry, DOT, FAA aasp logoand National Weather Service stakeholders together to identify weather needs.  AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, and the Alaska Air Carriers Association are all involved in this effort.  A white-paper is under development to document the status of aviation weather reporting in Alaska, and identify some of the programs or opportunities to help address this component of our aviation infrastructure.

Stay tuned for more developments on this issue, but for now, please make your voice heard by responding to this survey!

Share your thoughts on PIREPs with AOPA

Pilot Reports remain one of the best sources of information for pilots to determine what is actually happening as we plan or conduct a flight.  Weather forecasters also greatly value them to confirm or discover conditions occurring in the atmosphere in places they don’t have a weather observation.  But the PIREP system is a complex beast with many moving parts: these include, pilots that file reports, Flight Service and ATC staff to receive them and multiple data systems to hold and route them.  We are also affected by the tools for pilots, briefers, controllers and forecasters to retrieve them. To explore some of the issues associated with this system, AOPA has launched a national survey to probe at some aspects of PIREPs.  Please invest a few minutes to take this online survey and contribute to this effort.

Click here to take AOPA PIREP Survey

Improvements are being made
Concerns raised at the Valdez Fly-In two years ago about the “almost” total lack of PIREPs during the biggest VFR fly-in in the Alaska led to a statewide effort to increase the number of PIREPs filed. The qualifier “almost” is because while the NWS website showed no pilot reports, Flight Service systems indicated they had one report.  It took a bit of detective work to figure out why the two systems had differing results, and changes were made to address the issue.  As a consequence of these efforts, the Alaska Flight Service Program has established a working group with the aviation associations (including AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association) and other government agencies to dig into these issues that appear to have a positive impacts on multiple fronts.

Initial efforts were simply encouraging pilots to file more reports, however other exciting developments have taken place which are making a difference.  A pilot report layer was added to the FAA Weather Camera website, allowing pilots to view PIREPs while they were checking weather cameras.  More recently, the National Weather Service’s popular Alaska Aviation Weather Unit website has re-designed their PIREP page, allowing users to zoom in on the portion of the state they are interested in and see the locations of PIREPs in much greater detail.  Finally, SkyVector.com has added pilot reports as a layer on their flight planning website where the icon itself shows whether the report has to do with turbulence, ceiling or other conditions. To learn more about these developments, see New graphic tools to view PIREPs.

In parallel with these efforts, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched a nation-wide study regarding pilot reports, and are conducting interviews with stakeholders to learn more about the system.  A national meeting is being planned for late June in Washington DC as part of their program.

More to come
I believe we have a lot yet to learn about the PIREP system, and the potential to see it expanded beyond what we use today. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

Mapping Route Reports
Most pilot reports describe the conditions at a fixed point in space and time. PIREPs may also be filed as a “route report” that contains two or more locations.  Often I am looking for a PIREP to learn about the conditions through a mountain pass. There is a big difference between a “point” report on one side of a pass, versus a “route report” that tells me what conditions were like flying through the pass.  Currently these route reports are plotted as a point, which appears to represent the mid-point of the route.

A number of PIREPs were filed for conditions between Valdez and the Mat Su Valley during the Valdez Fly In. Most were plotted as a cluster of points near the College Fjord in Prince Williams Sound.

A number of PIREPs were filed for conditions between Valdez and the Mat Su Valley during the Valdez Fly In. Most were plotted as a cluster of points near the College Fjord in Prince Williams Sound.

In this day and age of graphic mapping tools, I would like to see a line or other symbol between those points, so one could tell at a glance the geographic extent of the report. Obviously there are lots of details to be worked out on how to plot these reports in ways that don’t obscure other map features.  Perhaps it is an option that may be toggled on and off.

An prototype example of how a Route PIREP might be depicted, with the lines connecting the locations included in the report, along with the direction of travel.

A prototype example of how a Route PIREP could be depicted, with the lines connecting the locations included in the report, and arrows indicating the direction of travel.

Soliciting PIREPs where needed
Today when FSS solicits a report, it is often a very generic statement, something along the lines that “pilot reports are requested along your route of flight for unforecast conditions.” I would much rather have FSS or ATC ask me for specific information another pilot or a forecaster really needs.  I have used this method in the past when I wanted to fly from Fairbanks to Point Barrow. North of  the Brooks Range, you can fly for about 200 nautical miles with virtually no weather reporting until nearing to the coastal communities.  In the past I would call Barrow Flight Service and ask them to solicit a report from the DC-6 that I knew flew the route on a daily basis.  And often an hour or so later, a report would appear in the system.  Why not extend that concept to the weather forecasters? I know at times they would kill to have a pilot report in some key areas to help validate their forecast.  How about defining a symbol that forecasters could post on a PIREP map so that pilots as well as FSS specialists, could see where a PIREP was needed? Now we could be responding to specific needs as opposed to generic requests. The new mapping tools could support such—again probably as a layer or feature that could be toggled on and off by the user.

A prototype image where forecasters identified areas they specifically wanted a PIREP, which could be seen both by FSS specialist and/or by pilots.

A prototype map allowing forecasters to identify areas they specifically wanted a PIREP, which could be seen by air traffic controllers, flight service specialist and by pilots.

Visual PIREPs
Flight Service in Alaska is already experimenting with the receipt of pictures provided by pilots, and using Twitter with the hash tag #GotWx as a way to add a visual element to a report. Not only is this helpful for weather, but during spring breakup, it provides valuable information to National Weather Service on the state of break-up of river ice, which poses a risk of flooding communities.

Screen shot of a visual pilot report from Twitter using the hash tag #GotWx.

Screen shot of a visual pilot report from Twitter using the hash tag #GotWx.










Voice your opinion
To help shape the future of the PIREP system, please take the time to respond to AOPA’s survey.  Help us understand how you use the system. Provide some of the information that may be used to improve one of the best weather sources available today, to help make that critical go/no-go decision before you fly.

AASF expands reach of Annual Seaplane Seminar

For the past thirty years, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation (AASF) has organized a spring safety seminar for float plane pilots in Anchorage.  The day-long seminar is held in the spring normally before the ice goes out on the float ponds. It has always been well attended, and covers a variety of topics.  This year, AASF upped their game and decided to offer the event both in Anchorage and Fairbanks at the same time. The aviation programs at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) hosted the session, aided by the wonders of web-conferencing, with presentations conducted by speakers located at both sites.

The Seaplane Pilots Association provided patches for people attending the seminar.

The Seaplane Pilots Association provided patches for people attending the seminar.

Topics included presentations on aeronautical judgement and decision making, as well as engine troubleshooting, satellite tracking devices and seaplane maintenance.  But it wasn’t all safety lectures.  Participants were briefed on efforts to contain the invasive weed, Elodea and the safety foundation presented their Right Stuff Award to Missionary Aviation Repair Center in Soldotna.  The award recognized that in spite of challenging circumstances, an off-airport landing was executed without the benefit of engine power, yet every one made it safely home at the end of the day.  Eventually including the aircraft!

Harry Kieling, AASF, welcomes participants to the 31st Annual Seaplane Seminar, at the UAA Aviation Program’s auditorium.

Harry Kieling, AASF, welcomes participants to the 31st Annual Seaplane Seminar, at the UAA Aviation Program’s auditorium.

For the first time ever the seminar was shared with pilots in Fairbanks, at UAF’s Aviation Center.

For the first time ever the seminar was shared with pilots in Fairbanks, at UAF’s Aviation Center.

The highlight of the day for most participants was an aviation scenario, or “dinner theater” as AASF Chairman (and scenario pilot) Harry Kieling, termed it.  For the past several years AASF has presented a scenario where a pair of pilots sets out to go flying. The audience is given the nature of the mission, equipment and weather, and at key points along the way invited to vote for what they would have done, based on what they know so far, and their aeronautical comfort level.  Roger Motzko, with FAA’s Air Traffic Organization’s Safety and Technical Training group, creates animations of these flights including terrain and weather, to visually bring the participant along on the flight.  This year, through the use of an online polling tool, participants with a smart phone in both Anchorage and Fairbanks could text their votes as to whether to take off, or wait for better conditions, and when to turn around.  The results were shared on the screen for all to see. That was pretty impressive!

Weather coming down survey response

Participants from both locations were able to vote via text message on options from the float plane scenario, and see how where their answers fell relative to the entire group.

Feedback desired:
As with any new innovation or change in the paradigm, there were some challenges. Audio quality for some sessions was poor in Fairbanks. We also found that it was difficult to ask a question if the person asking was not at the presenter’s site.  AASF will be reviewing the sessions, and figuring out if this “meeting architecture” is a good way to expand the reach of the seminar. This year, in addition to the 100+ attendees at UAA there were over 30 people that participated at UAF’s facility in Fairbanks.  If you were a participant at either location, AASF would like to hear from you. What did you like? What wasn’t effective?  How did you like the mix of topics?  What would you like to see or hear about in the future? Any recommendations for future formats? Please share your thoughts by email with the foundation.  Please help them shape the future of aviation education in Alaska!

New graphic tools to view PIREPs

Pilot Reports represent an important source of weather information for pilots.  Recently some new tools have been provided making it easier to access these observations.

Just released today, the National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) has upgraded the Pilot Report map on their website.  They have provided a PIREP map for a number of years, but only at a fixed state-wide scale.  The improved version features an interactive map display, which may be zoomed and panned to provide more detail on the exact area you are interested in.  This is particularly helpful when there are a cluster of reports that one wants to study in detail.  The default value on the PIREP page displays reports from the last three hours, however the AAWU also provides the ability to change the time window in several increments ranging from one to twenty four hours, to be able to look at trends.  They also still provide a text list at the bottom of the page listing the reports received in the last hour, if you want to go read them old school.  Here is the link to their PIREP page: http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/index.php?tab=4

New PIREP display on the AAWU website. Hovering over the icon provides the details of the report.

New PIREP display on the AAWU website. Hovering over the icon provides the details of the report.

Adjustable map scale allows users to zoom in on a specific area of interest.

Adjustable map scale allows users to zoom in on a specific area of interest. And to more easily see that there is a second report nearby.

SkyVector adds PIREPs
Another recent development is that PIREPs have been added as an optional layer to display on SkyVector.com.  A free-online flight planning and online mapping service, Seattle based SkyVector.com has since 2006 provided products combining flight charts and airport data along with weather and other information.  If you select the “layers” option at the top right corner of their main page, PIREPs are now an option that appears under the weather tab.  They not only display PIREPs graphically on their zoomable map, but the icon itself indicates something about the content of the report. Hovering over the PIREP provides more significant information about the report and how long ago it was submitted. Clicking on the icon brings up the entire report.  While I haven’t read formal documentation, it is clear that their icons are designed to provide information about the intensity of the report. In the example below, two PIPEPs indicating turbulence are shown, one reporting light and the other indicating moderate turbulence.  The full report provides the additional information including aircraft type, and altitude.

SkyVector.com uses icons regarding the type of conditions in the report.

SkyVector.com uses icons regarding the type of conditions in the report. Hovering over the icon (in the example above) provides additional details, and clicking it displays the entire report.

PIREPs on the FAA Weather Camera Website
Although not a new feature, PIREPs are also available on the FAA’s Weather Camera website: http://avcams.faa.gov/   After toggling them on under the Options choices listed on the left side of the page, PIREPs are displayed as a yellow filled circle on the zoomable map.   Unlike the AAWU site, there is no ability to select a time range to display, so reports age off the system after three hours.  Clicking on the icon brings up the entire report.

The FAA's Aviation Weather Camera website also offers PIREPs as a feature along with camera data and other weather information.

The FAA’s Aviation Weather Camera website also offers PIREPs as a feature along with camera data and other weather information. Yellow filled circles indicate pilot reports. Clicking the icon brings up the full report.

Thanks to all of these organizations for providing these tools to access PIPEPs.  I hope to see more developments in the display of this data in the future. It would be useful to see a graphic depiction of a “route report” that covers conditions between two or more points, such as a mountain pass.

Given these new resources, I hope there is an added incentive for each of us to take the extra minute to file a PIREP as we fly, and share with those behind the conditions we encountered along our route of flight!

Alaska Weather Camera Program needs a few pilots to test…

The FAA is looking for a few serious users of mobile devices to help test a new weather camera application.  If you are willing to devote some of your time over the next couple months to help test this new capability, consider volunteering to be part of the beta testing team and help put the new application through the ringer.

The FAA Aviation Weather Camera Program has by all accounts been a great addition to evaluating weather in Alaska. It grew from a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student program with three camera sites in 1999, to an operational system run by the FAA with over 220 sites across the state. Today it provides pilots, Flight Service and NWS Forecasters an important tool to help determine when it is safe to fly.  In addition to being able to see the weather within the last ten minutes (during daylight hours), the weather camera website includes additional information helpful to pilots, such as METARs and TAFs (where available), and more recently Pilot Reports.

A screenshot from the web-based version of the Weather Camera site. Green circles are camera sites, yellow are pilot reports and blue are third-party camera locations.  Features may be toggled on and off by the users.

A screenshot from the web-based version of the Weather Camera site. Green circles are camera sites, yellow are pilot reports and blue are third-party camera locations. Features may be toggled on and off by the users.

A further enhancement has been the addition of third party camera sites (provided by other than the FAA).  These now include cameras in Western Canada, that should help pilots flying the Alaska Highway.

Testers Needed:
Currently the FAA is preparing to add an improved mobile app to expand our ability to access these data.  The Weather Camera Program is looking for a handful of users willing to test the system prior to release to the public. Volunteers will be asked not only to use the system, but to participate in a few meetings to provide feedback for developers.  FAA would specifically like to have some members of the team based in rural parts of the state, to provide feedback on connectivity outside the urban areas.

If you are interested in volunteering for this assignment, please send an email to: [email protected] expressing interest, and letting them know (1) what platform (tablet or phone) you are using, (2) where you based, and (3) which mobile operating system you use.

Increase situational awareness – Consider filing a NOTAM before your next glider event

Gliders aren’t as popular in Alaska as in some other places, but there are locations where they do fly. The gliders and the tow planes that launch them can keep the airspace very busy. Paragliding also has quite a following, and is a popular form of aviation in some parts of the state. These lightweight, foot-launched gliders have a pilot suspended below a fabric wing. Despite having no engine, they can fly for hours, cover many miles and climb thousands of feet and thus end up far away from the launch site. As powered aircraft pilots, we need to do our best to avoid conflicts with these aircraft; one way to do that is to look for Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) describing glider operations during our pre-flight planning.  And if you are the person scheduling a glider—or paraglider—“gathering” or event, consider giving Flight Service a call to file a NOTAM, as a heads-up for your fellow aviators.  Flight Service will help you describe the operation you are planning, get a NOTAM in the system, and help alert all pilots to your activities when you are operating in and around busy airspace.

Cessna 170B with glider in tow off the Denali airstrip (AK06).  Photo by Rob Stapleton

Cessna 170B with glider in tow off the Denali airstrip (AK06). Photo by Rob Stapleton

Over the past year, the Mat Su Mid-Air Collision Avoidance Working Group has been looking at the flight corridor along the Glenn Highway, on the eastern edge of the Anchorage bowl.  The group, comprised of government and industry stakeholders, spent considerable time exploring the range of flying activities that take place along the Glenn, from Palmer south to Turnagain Arm.  In addition to the flow of GA traffic that comes and goes from the Anchorage airports, and aircraft skirting the Restricted Areas, Class C and D airspace, we learned about a range of glider and paraglider operations that occur along this busy corridor.

Civil Air Patrol (CAP) often launches glider operations out of Bryant Army Airfield or Birchwood—and on occasion Palmer. When flying out of Bryant, they will normally operate in the Bryant Class D and Restricted Area 2203, operating typically between 3,000 and 5,000 feet.  When launching from Birchwood, glider tow operations typically range from the surface to 3,000 feet, but under good “lift” conditions, the gliders themselves may attain altitudes as high as 14,000 feet between Cook Inlet and the mountains. Glider operations are not limited just to Anchorage. The Interior Alaska, CAP holds a summer glider camp out of the Clear Airport, south of Nenana, and sometimes operates from Ladd Field at Ft. Wainwright.

Paragliders and hang gliders are another source of traffic along the Glenn Highway. With a locally active club containing about 60 pilots, they may fly on weekends and during week-days in the Eagle River area, typically up to 6,000 feet, between April and June. During July through October, operations shift to Hatcher Pass and/or Girdwood, although some hardcore types fly year-around. Paragliders will occasionally make cross country flights from Turnagain Arm to Palmer, achieving altitudes of up to 10,000 feet! Thompson Pass, near Valdez, is the location of an April Snowkiting event.

Paragliding in Eagle River Valley. Photo by

Scott Amy paragliding in Eagle River Valley. Photo by Matt Bonney

Given the speed disparity between gliders, paragliders and faster powered aircraft, it helps to be aware of the location of their operations.  In the course of the group discussions, NOTAMs were identified as an additional tool—beyond see-and-avoid, lighting and CTAF usage, to help improve situational awareness between gliders and other powered aircraft sharing the airspace.

Filing a NOTAM
Recently, the Alaska Flight Service Program developed a two-page document that tells glider operators how to file a NOTAM.  The key details include the location where the operations are planned to occur, range of altitudes expected to be used and the block of time scheduled for flight operations.  The document also provides contact information for the three full-time Flight Service Stations in Kenai, Fairbanks and Juneau. They can help get you started or answer any questions about filing a NOTAM.

Finding the NOTAM
As summer and warmer temperatures near, pilots should be on the lookout for NOTAMs describing glider activities associated with an airport where gliders are launching. In the case of paragliders, launch locations are typically not tied to an airport, but rather a ridge top, with Eagle River Valley being one of the most popular areas to fly. If a NOTAM is in the system, it should show up if your route of flight comes close to the area defined in the notice. When you call Flight Service for a pre-flight briefing—or go online to use some of our favorite flight planning software—take an extra minute to look for NOTAMs that describe glider operations, as we all share the airspace.

Everyone wants to come home with a smile on their face at the end of their flight – so please use this additional tool to help make that happen!

PIREPs make the news

Pilot Reports (PIREPs) are an important source of aviation weather information for pilots and weather forecasters alike. Recently a TV news story was aired across Alaska explaining the role PIREPs play, and encouraging pilots to take the time to file—even if just to confirm good flying conditions.

Take a minute, and check out the story, which aired on Your Alaska Aviation Link http://www.youralaskalink.com/news/pilots-help-predict-weather/article_63ab6832-d5ee-11e5-b3a3-47c3dc34641d.html

AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association and other aviation stakeholders are working with FAA to improve the PIREP system, and increase its utilization. Flight Service reported a 32% increase in PIREPs filed in Alaska in 2015 over the previous year. Please help continue that trend!


For more info on Alaska PIREPs, see: http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=2524

or take the AOPA SkySpotter online course. skyspotter graphic

Volunteers needed to test Alaska PIREP website

The National Weather Service is looking for pilots willing to test a new enhanced Pilot Report page on the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s (AAWU) website.   The AAWU has displayed PIREPs graphically for many years, however recent technical problems lead them to upgrade the page. Fortunately for us, instead of just fixing the current PIREP map, NWS decided to significantly enhance the page. Presently, a “beta” version is available at the link below, with live data. Please take some time over the next two weeks to give it a try and let both NWS and AOPA know how you like it. Most importantly, let us know if the new page does not work on the devices you use.


aawu pirep page graphic

A sample showing the new PIREP page, with a zoomable map, and the ability to choose a time-range from one to as much as 24 hours. PIREPs above FL180 are displayed in blue, while lower altitude reports are green.

What’s Different?
The existing PIREP webpage contained a fixed scale map, which covers the entire state. Where there were multiple PIREPs at a single location, it was often challenging to select a specific report. The new site has a map that zooms to larger scales, giving a far more detailed depiction of the report location. NWS kept the ability to filter reports by time. If there are lots of PIREPs in the system, a user can display just the most recent reports. Conversely, you may choose to look at reports over the past 24 hours to evaluate trends. There are still a few refinements that could be made, and we appreciate the NWS inviting us to provide feedback before they declare the site operational.

More on PIREPs
This is one part of a larger aviation community effort to increase the number and quality of PIREPs in Alaska. These reports are a vital component of the information pilots rely on for aviation decision making, and NWS uses to validate aviation forecasts. AOPA and other Alaska aviation organizations are working with the FAA and NWS to examine the PIREP system and to encourage pilots to file more PIREPs. If you haven’t already done so, consider taking the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s online SkySpotter: PIREPs made easy (go to: http://www.aopa.org/Education/Online-Courses/Pireps-Made-Easy), for a refresher on this topic. It is free, available to all pilots.

Expect to see more on this topic in the months ahead, but for now, try out the AAWU’s new PIREP page. Please send your feedback to the AAWU at: [email protected]  and copy AOPA at [email protected].

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures Meeting in Alaska

The FAA’s update to the list of cold temperature restricted airports has generated questions from Alaska pilots about the process. Initially raised at a meeting of the Interior Alaska Flight Instructors Association in Fairbanks, the FAA is sending an official to Alaska from Washington DC to explain and discuss the procedures. Kel Christianson, from Flight Standards Performance Based Flight Systems Branch (AFS-470), will meet with pilots on Wednesday, January 20 at 7 p.m. Mr. Christianson will cover the background on why and how cold temperature correction procedures have been instituted in the National Airspace System, and provide detailed examples on making altitude corrections to instrument approach procedures.

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures apply to nearly 100 airports in Alaska.

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures apply to nearly 100 airports in Alaska.

The Fairbanks based CFI association compiled specific questions from Alaska operators in advance and supplied them to the FAA. A question and answer session will follow the briefing. FAA Air Traffic Control staff will also be on hand to answer questions. The meeting is being sponsored by the FAA Safety Team, and will take place at the Fairbanks International Airport Operations Center, 5195 Brumbaugh Blvd, on the west side of the airport.

Since almost a hundred Alaska airports are on the list, and winter tends to be our dominant season, these procedures may have a major impact on those pilots who fly IFR. Consider taking advantage of this meeting to learn more about this topic.

Possible increase in Alaska aviation motor fuel tax

Alaska is facing a budget crisis due to the low price of crude oil, which will impact all Alaskans, most likely in multiple ways. Focusing on the impact to the 247 state operated airports, the Alaska Aviation Advisory Board (AAB) worked with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT) to look at ways to provide additional revenue to support the airports, while having minimal impact on aviation system users. This discussion started back in February this year, when DOT initially announced a proposal to establish landing fees at Deadhorse, a move that many feared would spread to other airports across the state system. In a meeting with Governor Walker, the AAB expressed concerns about landing fees, and asked to work with DOT to look at other options before any changes were made. The Governor indicated he would welcome the board’s input, which kicked off a series of meetings with DOT.

At the spring and summer AAB meetings, DOT presented both the costs to operate the Rural Alaska Airport System, and three alternative methods to increase revenues. DOT also discussed several possible measures to reduce operating costs. These ranged from handing some airports over to local communities to operate, to streamlining the aviation functions of the department into a single division.   Establishing a true division of aviation within DOT is something that a number of aviation organizations, including AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association, have advocated for a number of years. While we believe that streamlining the management of DOT airports will help manage costs in the long run, this doesn’t address the immediate need to keep the airports operating.

What does it cost to operate state airports? Funding for airports comes in two distinct flavors: capital funding, which is used to build and improve airports, primarily comes from the federal government; and operating funding, which covers staffing, supplies and other costs associated with operations and maintenance, which is typically supplied by the airport owner.

Capital Funding:  The State of Alaska, like other states, receives grant money directly from the FAA through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), to build and expand airports. Alaska has received over $200 million/year for the past several years from this program. The FAA’s contribution is typically about 90% of the grant, with a requirement for the state to match the federal funding. The state’s contribution comes from the airport owner, called the sponsor, in FAA terms. This AIP funding mechanism allows for the construction and improvements of airports nationwide, but comes with strings attached. One of the strings is that the sponsor (airport owner) agrees to pay for operation of the facilities, and to keep them in good working order.

Operational Funding: Funding the operation and maintenance of airports is the challenge. The FAA expects airport sponsors (owners) to pay for operations, and airports typically charge fees to help cover some of those costs. Airport lease fees, tie down fees, and other revenue streams help offset operational costs. In Alaska, even though we rely on aviation for basic transportation, our low population base often doesn’t provide the volume of fees that would be needed for our airports to truly be self-sustaining. Here are the figures for the state-operated airports (not including Anchorage and Fairbanks International, which are operated as a separate enterprise fund). The cost to operate the Rural Alaska Aviation System in FY 2014 was $33.8 million dollars. Revenues received by the state included $5.3 million from airport leasing, tie down permits, etc. and $4.6 million in aviation motor fuels taxes, for a total revenue of $9.9 million. These revenues go into the General Fund. Each year the Legislature appropriates money from the General Fund to DOT, which includes the resources to operate the rural airports.

Revenue Options  DOT presented three options to increase revenues: Implement landing fees, initially at the regional hub (Part 139) airports; implement a state-wide airport user fee, and; increase motor fuel taxes. The AAB looked at these from the standpoint of how much they would cost to implement, the projected amount of revenue generated, what they would cost the users, and how equitable they seemed both to different segments of the aviation community and to the public, which in many cases relies on aviation for the delivery of goods and services, in addition to their own transportation. After considerable deliberation, the AAB recommended that the state increase the aviation motor fuel tax from the current levels (4.7 cents/gal for avgas and 3.2 cents/gal for jet fuel), to 10 cents/gal for both fuel types. Based on projections provided by the state, this would raise about $9 million additional revenue per year. Combined with the current revenue streams, it would provide approximately $19 million of the $34 million needed to operate the rural airports.

A significant motivation for this recommendation is that a change in motor fuel tax doesn’t create any additional cost to state government to collect. Both landing fees and airport user fees require additional administrative efforts to collect, as well as burden the user with tracking and payment. It was also felt that the motor fuel tax was more equitable because cost is proportional to use. Adam White, Government Affairs Manager for the Alaska Airmen’s Association, provided the following information to show the impact to some typical GA users:

Adam White fuel tax table

At a recent meeting in Fairbanks, Governor Walker acknowledged the AAB recommendation. It will take legislative action, however, to make a change to the motor fuel tax. While no one wants to see an increase in operating cost, the motor fuel tax increase option appears to be the best choice to address this issue. We will certainly be discussing it more in the months ahead, and we are interested in hearing your thoughts on funding to keep our airports open, maintained and safe for all aviation operations.


This article is reprinted from the January-March, 2016 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association Transponder.