OU-Owned Airport Receives Millions In Federal Money

Monday, April 16th 2007, 6:00 am

By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- Visit the airport owned by the University of Oklahoma on a big football Saturday, and you'll see rows of planes lined up, having carried fans who might well take the airport-provided shuttle bus across town to watch the Sooners play.

But Max Westheimer Airport's primary source of funding comes not from these travelers, but from people who will likely never land there.

The airport is one of many "general aviation" facilities across the country that received more than $7 billion in federal funding over the past decade from ticket surcharges paid by passengers on commercial flights. It received $2.29 million from this fund last year alone.

Five other Oklahoma general-aviation airports received more than $1 million from the same source last year -- Bartlesville Municipal ($1.76 million), Enid Woodring Regional Airport ($2.9 million), Jones Airport in Tulsa ($3.09 million), Tahlequah Municipal ($1.92 million) and West Woodward Airport ($1.07 million).

Congress soon will decide whether to keep this FAA-administered funding system, called the Airport Improvement Program, or end it.

Some critics of the system complain the money comes with little oversight and that commercial air travelers are overtaxed.

"Whatever Congress does, the airport system remains and it needs to be funded," Max Westheimer airport administrator Walt Strong said. "...No matter which way you slice it, this is still the fastest way to move people or goods, by air."

He said the airport has indirect benefits to people who don't use the facility. For example, companies use these smaller airports when they collect bank checks and fly them to a central location.

"And how about if you have an emergency situation or a medical condition and you need a transplanted organ?" Strong asked. "They're not going to fly it into Oklahoma City and then truck it down to you in Pauls Valley. They're going to fly it into Pauls Valley. So while you and your person may not ever get on an airplane at that airport, the issue is more of, it's an aviation system."

The airport also is home to OU's aviation program, in which students can earn bachelor's degrees as a pilot or in aviation management.

During the week at Max Westheimer Airport, it's not uncommon for energy-company executives to use the facility when they visit the university, which has a sizable earth and energy college that includes one of the nation's largest schools of petroleum and geological engineering.

Famous people with speaking engagements at OU -- a list that in recent years has included former President Bush, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- also have passed through the airport on their way to the campus.

Federal Aviation Administration statistics indicate that the airport -- located about a mile east of Interstate 35 in north Norman -- is home to 67 single engine aircraft, 24 multiengine planes, four jets (none of which are owned by OU), one chopper and four military aircraft and has about 66,000 aircraft operations, or takeoffs and landings, a year, a number that includes touch-and-gos by student pilots.

OU's involvement with the airport began in 1940, when the university bought 160 acres, said Brittany Harold, a staff assistant at the airport who has researched its history.

A year later, the city of Norman bought 128 more acres and agreed to lease the land to OU for $1 a year, a lease that still is in place. A chance encounter by an OU administrator with a U.S. Navy official led to the airport being used as a naval training base during World War II, Harold said.

Among the elements of the naval base was a large mound – known locally as Mount Williams -- that was part of a firing range and remained as a landmark along I-35 for decades after the Navy left, until February 2006, when the final portion of it was razed as part of a commercial development project.

In 1946, the airport reverted back to OU, along with all the buildings built and equipment and extra acreage accumulated by the Navy. The airport now sits on 730 acres, Strong said.

A rider to a bill passed by Congress in 2000 opened the door for commercial development on another 550 acres near I-35 that once were part of the airport. Until then, federal law required the university to use the proceeds from any sale of land at the airport to benefit the airport.

Once that restriction was lifted, OU sold the land, with the proceeds eventually going to help fund the construction of the National Weather Center on the south end of the OU campus, Strong said. That $67.3 million, 244,000-square-foot center opened last September.

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