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July 06, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Guest Opinion: The question relating to the Palo Alto Airport should be, 'What if?' Guest Opinion: The question relating to the Palo Alto Airport should be, 'What if?' (July 06, 2005)

by Peter Carpenter

Palo Alto is a community that values recreation, jobs, congestion-reducing transportation alternatives, education and training, tax-revenue generation, rapid access to emergency medical care and preservation of its Baylands.

It is a community that has devoted considerable time and effort to the careful development and formal adoption of its Comprehensive Plan and its Baylands Master Plan.

And it is a community whose city government is facing severe financial constraints, now and for the foreseeable future.

What if Palo Alto was literally given the opportunity to have a community facility that would provide recreation for thousands of people, create hundreds of jobs, enable some people to avoid long traffic-congesting commutes, provide education and training for hundreds of people at no expense to the taxpayers, contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in property and sales taxes, ensure that critically sick people and vitally needed organs could reach our hospitals in time to save hundreds of lives, and contribute to the preservation of the Baylands?

And what if that facility was consistent with the current Comprehensive Plan and the Baylands Master Plan and did not cost the taxpayers a dime? Sound like a pretty good opportunity?

The good news is that the Palo Alto Airport already does all of these things -- and more. The airport has a long and rich history and is an extremely valuable community resource.

I have been part of the airport since I learned to fly there in 1990. It has given me and my family great pleasure to rise into the air at sunrise, sunset or in between -- to fly under the sun or, sometimes, stars. And I'd like to see future generations share the soaring exhilaration that flying can provide, from a community airport small enough for people to know each other as neighbors.

In 1929 (when the airport was located next to Embarcadero and El Camino Real), it was designated by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board -- the predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration -- as Aviation Ground School Number 1!

It has only one noise complaint for every 63,909 operations, which an expert on airport noise called "the lowest number of complaints per operations I have ever heard of for any size airport."

More than 200 people are employed by Palo Alto Airport-based organizations --including the largest nonprofit flying club in the world. There are more than 150,000 recreational flights and more than 30,000 business flights a year. Last year more than 800 students earned their pilots' licenses or advanced ratings at the airport, many of them going on to jobs in commercial aviation.

In 2004, hundreds of seriously ill patients were transported by fixed-wing airplanes to the airport and then by ambulance or Life Flight helicopter to Stanford Hospital. During that same year hundreds of hearts, lungs and other organs were flown in and transferred to numerous local hospitals for transplantation into patients who might otherwise have died.

Some individuals fly in from outside the Bay Area daily to work in the local area, thereby reducing the surface traffic congestion from their long-distance commuting. Local businesses frequently use the airport to welcome customers and for their own business travel.

In 2004, more than $500,000 in property, possessory interest and sales taxes were paid by the users of the airport -- with most of the taxes going to the City of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District, as well as local community colleges.

The Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan has an airport policy: "Support the continued vitality and effectiveness of the Palo Alto Airport without significantly increasing its intensity or intruding into open space areas. The Airport should remain limited to a single runway and two fixed-base operators. Palo Alto will allow for improvement and only minor expansion of existing airport facilities. In the sensitive baylands area, and immediately adjacent to homes in East Palo Alto, traffic and aircraft noise should be minimized."

The Palo Alto Airport meets or exceeds all of those policy objectives. And it doesn't cost Palo Alto taxpayers a dime.

Yet most Palo Alto residents do not even know that we have an airport -- much less that it contributes all of these wonderful, irreplaceable things to the community. Worse, under the current lease of the airport to Santa Clara County it is perceived as losing money -- primarily because the profitable operations of airport-based businesses are not included in this miscalculation. The sad news is that the city does not have a plan for the proactive management of this unique and valuable community asset and instead defers to the county to fulfill this role. But since the county's airport management lease runs out in only 12 years it cannot be expected to have a long-term interest or perspective.

The best news is that next Monday night the City Council will have the opportunity to review all the facts about the Palo Alto Airport and to reaffirm the city's responsibility and interest in maintaining this vital community resource for the long term.

Peter Carpenter is chairman of the Joint Community Relations Committee for the Palo Alto Airport and is a former Palo Alto Planning Commission member from 1973 to 1977. He currently serves on the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. He can be e-mailed at

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