People are selling their possessions in yard sales to avoid foreclosure. Families line up in their cars for an hour to receive free food. The $600-a-week unemployment stipend for the jobless has run out.
But almost every airport in America received federal bailout money ranging from $300 million provided to Dallas/Fort International Airport to $30,000 to Decatur Municipal Airport.
It’s part of the $10 billion airport relief bonanza tucked away in the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act). The Watchdog calls it “corona-pork.”
How’d this happen? How does anything happen in Congress? Connections.
Patrick O’Connor is a media consultant for Narrative Strategies, a Washington, D.C.: firm that works with Airports Council International – North America. The council represents the nation’s larger airports.
Airport council members and their lobbyists, O’Connor said, “asked Congress for $10 billion to help airports address the immediate financial hardships that resulted from the abrupt, unexpected drop in passenger travel relate to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ask for $10 billion; get $10 billion.
It’s like a magic trick. Corona-pork comes with no strings, doesn’t have to be paid back and can be used for almost any airport expense.
The people working the yard sale, waiting for food or missing unemployment checks don’t have ultra-powerful lobbyists and a media consulting firm on their side who can flip a switch and deliver like that. If they did, Congress wouldn’t be a no-show on more stimulus for hurting Americans.
Begins with a windsock
For me, the story of CARES Act airport grants begins with a windsock at Hillsboro Municipal Airport. You know the windsock. It helps pilots determine wind speed and direction.
David P. Rush, a retired engineer who served in the military, is a Hillsboro resident who likes to keep an eye on city expenses. He noticed a small story in the Hillsboro Reporter that his town’s little one-runway airport is getting a $553,000 grant from the feds through CARES. The money would be spent on new runway lights, signage and a new windsock.
He sent me the story with a comment: “How exactly does COVID-19 effect the Hillsboro Airport? The $553,000 might not seem like a lot to some people, but I can’t believe it needs to be spent on airport lighting and a new windsock.”
The Watchdog started digging. First, I learned that other airport grants were voted in by the Texas Transportation Commission in July. These 22 projects, including Hillsboro, totaled $22 million in CARES grants.
Granbury Regional receives $3 million for a new runway. That’s the most on the commission’s approval list, which also includes $250,000 for Arlington Municipal and $400,000 for Denton Enterprise, to be used for engineering and design of runway improvements.
I thought that was it, but then I found something that surprised me. The Federal Aviation Administration posted a map showing every airport in the U.S. On that, I learned that almost every airport received a CARES grant — more than 3,000 airports, the FAA says.
These no-strings-attached gifts went to almost everybody. They didn’t go through the transportation commission. They don’t have to be matched by state funds either. A sampling:
Plano Center Municipal: $30,000
Addison Airport: $157,000
Grand Prairie Municipal: $69,000.
Fort Worth Meacham International: $157,000
Dallas Love Field: $53 million.
The money can go for salaries, for debt service, for construction improvements – any airport expense. The money cannot be saved for future use.
At Arlington Municipal, airport manager Karen VanWrinkle said the quarter-million-dollar grant will be used to pay for a drainage study. With heavy rains, water flows on to Green Oaks Boulevard.
Financially, “We were devastated by the pandemic,” she said.
An additional $69,000 grant was used for repairs to the air traffic control tower.
Patrick Stewart, manager of Granbury Regional, said the $3 million will go towards paying for a new 5,200-foot-long runway.
At Hillsboro, manager John Graham watches over the airport in addition to his duties as director of parks and of city cemeteries.
He told The Watchdog the runway lights date back to the airport’s 1993 opening.
The $553,000 is helpful, he said, because “it’s very difficult for small airports to keep the maintenance and everything up that needs to be done for safety issues for the pilots and so forth.”
What about that windsock? I asked.
“They’re going to replace it with a newer style windsock where the lights are illuminated from inside the sock so it’s much more visible to the pilots at night time,” he answered. “Right now the windsock is lit up by lights above the windsock.”
These upgrades are required by the state and federal governments to maintain airport standards, he said.
I told this to Rush, the Hillsboro budget watcher and original tipster. He became frustrated when he talked about the factory workers who live in the region but can’t afford health care because they don’t get full benefits.
He said he wished the money instead could pay for health care.
To lighten his mood, I said, “Well, congratulations on your new windsock.”
It worked. He laughed a bit and said, “Yeah, just what I need.”
Become a citizen of Watchdog Nation. Join Dave Lieber and learn to be a super-consumer.
Watch this free training video from Dave: https://youtu.be/uhUEUCNKGjc
Subscribe: PLEASE support The Watchdog’s brand of straightforward journalism designed to save you time, money and aggravation. Treat yourself to a DallasNews.com full digital subscription for only $2.99 a week and NEVER MISS The Watchdog’s TWO reports each week. Sign up here.
Watchdog newsletter: Sign up for The Watchdog’s FREE weekly newsletter to keep up: click here.
Watchdog story page: You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog home page.
Do you use Facebook? Connect with The Watchdog on our Facebook group. Search for “Dallas News Watchdog Posse.”
The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the top prize for column writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”
Read his winning columns:
* Helping the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, get buried beside her late husband
* Helping a waitress who was harmed by an unscrupulous used car dealer
©2020 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.